Virgin domestic flights a ‘disaster’ as passengers stick with no-frills rivals

Flights branded as 'Little Red' have experienced low sales

Virgin Atlantic’s venture into domestic aviation has proved financially disastrous. During the first six months flying from Heathrow to Aberdeen, Edinburgh and Manchester, the average flight has been only one-third full. For every occupied seat, two have gone empty – even though the Virgin plane is cheaper than a Virgin train.

Flights from Heathrow to Manchester, branded as “Little Red”, started in late March. Links to Scotland began early in April. At the time, Sir Richard Branson promised Little Red would “deliver Virgin Atlantic’s rock and roll spirit as well as real value for money”.

Few passengers have been tempted so far. The Independent calculates that 825,000 seats were available during the first six months. Virgin initially told us that 250,000 passengers had flown on Little Red, but late today said the number was “closer to 300,000”. If the true figure is midway between the two, the “load factor” was 33 per cent – in contrast to the industry standard of close to 80 per cent, while low-cost carriers such as easyJet and Ryanair achieve around 90 per cent.

The aviation analyst John Strickland said: “The poor loads indicate that the majority of point-to-point traffic on domestic flights now uses low-cost services from other London airports.

The Independent’s journey aboard this afternoon’s Virgin Atlantic flights 3047 and 3048 from Heathrow to Manchester and back appeared to confirm the low sales. The service is operated by Airbus A320 jets fitted with 174 seats. The northbound leg carried 46 passengers, including two infants. Going south, I was one of only 38 passengers – meaning the plane was less than a quarter full. I bought a ticket on the day for £64, £12 less than Virgin Trains’ lowest same-day rail fare between Manchester and Euston.

While the aircraft are in Virgin Atlantic colours, they belong to Aer Lingus. The Irish airline “wet-leases” the jets and crew to Virgin, and gets paid regardless of how well or badly the route is performing.

One man enjoying the acres of elbow room was Robert Meizel, an American businessman connecting to a New York flight. “If they cut the fares they might fill a few more seats,” he said.

Industry insiders estimate that direct losses on the network have been running at between £2m and £3m per week. Calculations are complicated, however, because – like BA – Virgin is prepared to sustain some losses on domestic operations that feed traffic to lucrative intercontinental flights.

Douglas McNeill of Charles Stanley Securities said: “These are routes which British Midland struggled to make work… Virgin Atlantic must make sure it doesn’t just carry on where British Midland left off.

With so few seats filled, each passenger contributes disproportionately to noise and pollution. John Stewart of the anti-expansion pressure group HACAN Clearskies, said: “This confirms what many have suspected – that a big problem at Heathrow is that so many planes are far from full. Full planes may lessen the pressure for a third runway.”

A spokeswoman for Virgin Atlantic said: “As with any new route it takes time for customers to become fully aware of our service. It is normal to have comparatively low load factors in the first six months… Our business plan allowed for this. Bookings for future travel continue to grow steadily.”

Top of the flops: Branson’s bad ideas

Virgin Cola

Branson’s ill-fated attempt to take the fight to Pepsi and Coca Cola’s duopoly in 1994 with his own fizzy drink was doomed from the start. Despite a great fanfare – Sir Richard famously drove a Sherman tank through New York crushing rivals’ bottles – the company was quietly dissolved after 16 years.

Virgin Brides

Despite the catchy name, the wedding dress business was a flop. The venture suffered losses in the competitive market and stopped taking orders in 2007.

Virgin Digital

Branson attempted to take on Apple’s iPod and iTunes with Virgin Pulse and Virgin Digital in 2004. The company folded within a year.

The Independent travel offers: Discover a world of inspiring destinations

News
Susan Sarandon described David Bowie as
peopleSusan Sarandon reveals more on her David Bowie romance
Sport
Arsenal supporters gather for a recent ‘fan party’ in New Jersey
football
Sport
sportDidier Drogba returns to Chelsea on one-year deal
Arts and Entertainment
The Secret Cinema performance of Back to the Future has been cancelled again
film
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Life and Style
Balmain's autumn/winter 2014 campaign, shot by Mario Sorrenti and featuring Binx Walton, Cara Delevingne, Jourdan Dunn, Ysaunny Brito, Issa Lish and Kayla Scott
fashionHow Olivier Rousteing is revitalising the house of Balmain
News
people
Arts and Entertainment
Christian Grey cradles Ana in the Fifty Shades of Grey film
filmFifty Shades of Grey trailer provokes moral outrage in US
News
BBC broadcaster and presenter Evan Davis, who will be taking over from Jeremy Paxman on Newsnight
peopleForget Paxman - what will Evan Davis be like on Newsnight?
Life and Style
fashionCustomer complained about the visibly protruding ribs
Voices
The new dawn heralded by George Osborne has yet to rise
voicesJames Moore: As the Tories rub their hands together, the average voter will be asking why they're not getting a piece of the action
Sport
Dejan Lovren celebrates scoring for Southampton although the goal was later credited to Adam Lallana
sport
News
newsComedy club forced to apologise as maggots eating a dead pigeon fall out of air-conditioning
Arts and Entertainment
Jo Brand says she's mellowed a lot
tvJo Brand says shows encourage people to laugh at the vulnerable
Life and Style
People may feel that they're procrastinating by watching TV in the evening
life
Travel
ebookHow to enjoy the perfect short break in 20 great cities
Independent Travel Videos
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Amsterdam
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Giverny
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in St John's
Independent Travel Videos
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Travel

    C++ Software Engineer - Hounslow, West London - C++ - to £60K +

    £40000 - £60000 per annum + Pension, Healthcare : Deerfoot IT Resources Limite...

    VB.NET and C# developer (VB.NET,C#,ASP.NET)

    £30000 - £45000 per annum + Bonus+Benefits+Package: Harrington Starr: VB.NET a...

    Visitor Experience volunteer

    Unpaid voluntary role: Old Royal Naval College: To assist the Visitor Experien...

    Telesales Manager. Paddington, London

    £45-£55k OTE £75k : Charter Selection: Major London International Fashion and ...

    Day In a Page

    Evan Davis: The BBC’s wolf in sheep’s clothing to take over at Newsnight

    The BBC’s wolf in sheep’s clothing

    What will Evan Davis be like on Newsnight?
    Finding the names for America’s shame: What happens to the immigrants crossing the US-Mexico border without documents who never make it past the Arizona desert?

    Finding the names for America’s shame

    The immigrants crossing the US-Mexico border without documents who never make it past the Arizona desert
    Inside a church for Born Again Christians: Speaking to God in a Manchester multiplex

    Inside a church for Born Again Christians

    As Britain's Anglican church struggles to establish its modern identity, one branch of Christianity is booming
    Rihanna, Kim Kardashian and me: How Olivier Rousteing is revitalising the house of Balmain

    Olivier Rousteing is revitalising the house of Balmain

    Parisian couturier Pierre Balmain made his name dressing the mid-century jet set. Today, Olivier Rousteing – heir to the house Pierre built – is celebrating their 21st-century equivalents. The result? Nothing short of Balmania
    Cancer, cardiac arrest, HIV and homelessness - and he's only 39

    Incredible survival story of David Tovey

    Tovey went from cooking for the Queen to rifling through bins for his supper. His is a startling story of endurance against the odds – and of a social safety net failing at every turn
    Backhanders, bribery and abuses of power have soared in China as economy surges

    Bribery and abuses of power soar in China

    The bribery is fuelled by the surge in China's economy but the rules of corruption are subtle and unspoken, finds Evan Osnos, as he learns the dark arts from a master
    Commonwealth Games 2014: Highland terriers stole the show at the opening ceremony

    Highland terriers steal the show at opening ceremony

    Gillian Orr explores why a dog loved by film stars and presidents is finally having its day
    German art world rocked as artists use renowned fat sculpture to distil schnapps

    Brewing the fat from artwork angers widow of sculptor

    Part of Joseph Beuys' 1982 sculpture 'Fettecke' used to distil schnapps
    BBC's The Secret History of Our Streets reveals a fascinating window into Britain's past

    BBC takes viewers back down memory lane

    The Secret History of Our Streets, which returns with three films looking at Scottish streets, is the inverse of Benefits Street - delivering warmth instead of cynicism
    Joe, film review: Nicolas Cage delivers an astonishing performance in low budget drama

    Nicolas Cage shines in low-budget drama Joe

    Cage plays an ex-con in David Gordon Green's independent drama, which has been adapted from a novel by Larry Brown
    How to make your own gourmet ice lollies, granitas, slushy cocktails and frozen yoghurt

    Make your own ice lollies and frozen yoghurt

    Think outside the cool box for this summer's tempting frozen treats
    Ford Fiesta is UK's most popular car of all-time, with sales topping 4.1 million since 1976

    Fiesta is UK's most popular car of all-time

    Sales have topped 4.1 million since 1976. To celebrate this milestone, four Independent writers recall their Fiestas with pride
    10 best reed diffusers

    Heaven scent: 10 best reed diffusers

    Keep your rooms smelling summery and fresh with one of these subtle but distinctive home fragrances that’ll last you months
    Commonwealth Games 2014: Female boxers set to compete for first time

    Female boxers set to compete at Commonwealth Games for first time

    There’s no favourites and with no headguards anything could happen
    Five things we’ve learned so far about Manchester United under Louis van Gaal

    Five things we’ve learned so far about United under Van Gaal

    It’s impossible to avoid the impression that the Dutch manager is playing to the gallery a little