Virgin Atlantic has issued a challenge to International Airlines Group’s (IAG) dominance at Heathrow airport as it announced plans to increase its route network at the hub from 19 to 103 when the third runway opens.

The airline claimed its plans offer “a step change in choice for customers” by transforming it into a “second flag carrier” for the UK, with 84 new destinations being looked at both domestically and abroad.

IAG, which owns British Airways, currently holds more than 55 per cent of Heathrow’s take-off and landing slots. Virgin Atlantic said a recent study showed one in four passengers flying from the airport “have no choice” but to fly with the group’s carriers because they operate 77 “monopoly routes” along with their joint venture partners – and that customers could be paying up to 10 per cent more in airfares as a result.

The government’s Aviation Strategy Green Paper has set out the primary objective for the allocation of new take-off and landing slots on Heathrow’s third runway – which is due to be operational by 2026 – of facilitating increased competition between airlines.

Rules for the allocation of these slots is being reviewed by the government, and Virgin Atlantic has warned that the slots must be given out in a way that “enables the development of a second flag carrier with the necessary scale to compete effectively with IAG.”

Among routes being planned by the airline are 12 domestic destinations, 37 in Europe and 35 long-haul. In the UK, the carrier wants to fly from Heathrow to cities such as Aberdeen, Exeter, Manchester, Belfast City, Liverpool, Edinburgh and Glasgow, among others.

Virgin Atlantic is part of the Connect Airways consortium, which acquired regional carrier Flybe earlier this year. The airline will be rebranded under the Virgin name in the future, and it already operates flights from Heathrow to Aberdeen, Newquay, Edinburgh and Guernsey.

If it is granted additional take-off and landing slots on the new runway, Virgin Atlantic said it plans to launch flights to 26 destinations currently only served by IAG airlines, including Accra, Basel, Cork, Osaka, San Diego, Helsinki, Prague, Cape Town and Raleigh Durham in the US, among others.

Below is a map of Virgin Atlantic’s route map as of 2020, with current services highlighted in red; all destinations in blue are flights it plans to launch if it is granted extra slots.

International routes planned by Virgin Atlantic at an expanded Heathrow

And below is a map showing the UK and European routes the airline wants to operate at an expanded Heathrow.

Regional routes planned by Virgin Atlantic at an expanded Heathrow

CEO Shai Weiss commented: “Never has the need for effective competition and choice at Heathrow airport been more evident than during this summer of disruption, which has brought misery for tens of thousands of travellers. Britain, and those who travel to it, deserve better than this. Air passengers need a choice and Virgin Atlantic is ready to deliver when Heathrow expands.

“Heathrow has been dominated by one airline group for far too long. The third runway is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to change the status quo and create a second flag carrier. This would lower fares and give real choice to passengers, as well as giving Britain a real opportunity to boost its trade and investment links around the world. Changing the way take-off and landing slots are allocated for this unique and vital increase in capacity at the nation’s hub airport will create the right conditions for competition and innovation to thrive.”

But a spokesperson for IAG claimed Virgin Atlantic’s limited Heathrow routes “are down to its corporate strategy”, adding: “The airline has failed to create more competition at the airport. It closed Little Red on domestic routes, pulled off long-haul routes and rents out the slots it owns to other airlines to fly.”

Heathrow’s expansion may face some scrutiny under Boris Johnson’s government. The prime minister was famously against expansion in the run-up to a Parliamentary vote on the project, at one point claiming he would “lie down” in front of bulldozers to stop construction of the runway. He was not present at the critical vote amongst MPs, instead taking a trip to Afghanistan under his then-role as foreign secretary.

New transport secretary Grant Shapps has also said that he will be “having a really close look at whether figures stack up or whether building more capacity, another runway there, would add to the charges to such an extent that it doesn’t”. He raised concerns over whether Heathrow Airport Ltd will be able to “bring in enough income to justify the billions of pounds spent on” the project.

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