James Halstead: Sir Richard's baby is a lot different to her rivals

So Virgin Atlantic managed to double pre-tax profits to £68m, having carried 5.7 million passengers in the year to February and generated revenues of £2.6bn. It says so on the press release so it must be true. In contrast, last week British Airways announced a full-year pre-tax loss of £401m and Air France-KLM recorded a loss of €814m (£714m) for the year to March.

In the face of these figures – and negative news from the rest of the world's airline industry – Virgin must surely be doing exceptionally well. But before rushing to congratulate Sir Richard Branson and Steve Ridgeway, one should perhaps appreciate the differences. Unlike British Airways and Air France-KLM, Virgin Atlantic is privately owned. Detailed information is not available, and, with financial announcements, the devil tends to be in the detail. Virgin's figures include its holiday operation and may or may not include Virgin Nigeria. There also may or may not be other exceptionals, and the £68m profit reflects a margin of a mere 2.5 per cent.

Having said that, the company did benefit from BA's shambolic transfer to Terminal 5. It also managed to pick up premium passengers. It was also possibly less affected by Open Skies last April. Above all, however, Virgin Atlantic operates only long haul routes, without competition from the likes of Ryanair and easyJet, while "premium class" competitors MaxJet, Silverjet and EOS have all disappeared.

To give the company its due, it did start to cut capacity early and started deferring aircraft deliveries before the collapse in October. It also may have had a reasonably effective fuel hedging programme.

Virgin is still facing as tough an operating environment as any airline in these difficult times.

James Halstead is an independent aviation expert

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