Plane Talk: Virgin Atlantic tackles the 787 engine issue with ex-Air Berlin planes

Until very recently, the airline that Sir Richard Branson founded 34 years ago was not intending to acquire four more Airbus A330 jets...

Simon Calder
Travel Correspondent
@SimonCalder
Friday 19 January 2018 19:27
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Time-lapse of Virgin Atlantic plane being painted

Daydream Believer, Honky Tonk Woman, Scarlett O’Hara and Strawberry Fields are the names of the latest additions to the Virgin Atlantic fleet.

Yet until very recently, the airline that Sir Richard Branson founded 34 years ago was not intending to acquire four more Airbus A330 jets.

The wide-bodied planes have been leased for the coming year to cover for some of the airline’s Boeing 787 jets. Virgin Atlantic, in common with Air New Zealand, British Airways and other carriers, has encountered a problem with a small number of Rolls-Royce Trent 1000 engines fitted to the well-regarded Dreamliner aircraft: the turbine blades are wearing out more quickly than anticipated.

Just before Christmas, the European Aviation Safety Agency issued an Emergency Airworthiness Directive which ordered affected airlines to “de-pair” the engines, ie not to have an aircraft with two of the Trent 1000s in question.

“It’s not a safety issue,” says Phil Maher, Virgin Atlantic’s executive vice-president of operations. “We know exactly when they will wear out.” The problem is, Rolls-Royce does not have the replacement capacity for the number of engines that require work. Therefore 787s are being grounded while they await their turn for attention.

During the winter season, when demand is lower, airlines can shuffle their fleets to cope with the shortfall. But from March onwards, carriers will need all the aircraft they can get.

The cloud of the collapse of Air Berlin last autumn had a silver lining for Virgin Atlantic and its passengers. Suddenly some Airbus A330 jets became available. And, as stereotypes might suggest, they have had one very careful owner.

“Our engineers gave them extensive checks,” says Phil Maher. “They have been maintained to a very high standard.”

All four aircraft will be based in Manchester; unlike British Airways, Virgin Atlantic has a busy transatlantic hub at the UK’s third-busiest airport. They will fly to Atlanta, Boston, New York JFK and San Francisco, as well as to Barbados. Even though the aircraft are not expected to be long-term additions to the Virgin Atlantic fleet, Maher is overseeing the transformation from average aircraft to his airline’s exacting brand. It involves more than just an external paint job, though, to create the right ambience – and touches of luxury in the Upper Class zone.

“We are bringing the cabin up to the Virgin standard,” says Maher.

One group of passengers, though, will notice some difference. For the summer, the planes will not have a Premium Economy cabin. Virgin Atlantic was the first UK carrier with wider seats, more legroom and other enhancements for a bit more than the basic economy fare – introduced in 1992 as “Mid Class”. But, says Phil Maher: “There are simply not sufficient seats available. To order a seat and have it delivered takes six months minimum.”

Some passengers had already booked for Premium Economy on the affected routes. They are being offered choices including re-routing from London or downgrading with a partial refund.

Rolls-Royce says: “We are working together to minimise this impact and restore full flight operations as soon as possible.”

Meanwhile, says Maher: “Our priority is to protect our customers’ journeys.”

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