Virgin Atlantic was able to increase its daily flights to Florida after securing an extra take-off and landing slot at Heathrow Airport due to the war in Ukraine, it can be revealed.
The carrier, founded by Sir Richard Branson nearly 40 years ago, launched its maiden flight to Tampa last week, bringing to seven the number of flights it operates each day to the ‘crown jewel’ state of American holidays from the UK.
This was possible because Russian airline Aeroflot lost its 70 weekly slots – which allowed five round trips a day – after the British government imposed sanctions in May. Russian planes were already banned from entering British airspace.
Virgin was one of six airlines to secure a ‘bargain’ pair of slots when they were auctioned off by Airport Co-Ordination, the organization awarding the arrangements to Heathrow.
This led Virgin to present its plans to fly to Tampa. It already serves Orlando and Miami. Up to 70% of the airline’s flights are to the United States.
The new slots have been awarded for the winter and next summer, but Virgin has indicated a long-term commitment to Tampa if it can make the route profitable.
It is expected to announce two additional new routes later this month, but destinations to the Far East have reportedly been excluded until summer 2024 due to a ban on entering Russian airspace. A detour would add up to three hours to some long-haul flights, making them unviable.
Virgin Atlantic chief executive Shai Weiss, asked why he chose to fly to Tampa, told the Standard: “The southern part of the United States is really booming. The demand for this daily service is enormous. We believe this path can be successful.
“People think of Tampa for its beautiful beaches, but it’s also a very important hub for business.
Heathrow’s slots are dominated by British Airways, which owns the rights for more than half, or around 4,600 per week.
Virgin comes second, around five percent or 400 per week.
Slots at Heathrow, which have capacity constraints, are highly prized and can be worth around £20m or more.
Airlines such as Virgin Atlantic have criticized Heathrow’s post-pandemic passenger services.
It is unclear what will happen once the war in Ukraine is over and the UK restores relations with Russia.
It is likely that Aeroflot will have to be reassigned landing rights at Heathrow as part of a “reciprocal” agreement that would allow carriers such as British Airways to resume flights to Moscow.
Virgin is retaining slots at Gatwick but has ruled out a return to the airport at short notice. It closed its operations at Gatwick in 2020 as a cost-cutting measure during the pandemic.