WORLD ROUTES: Virgin Atlantic Edges Closer to First Dreamliner Delivery

The first European operator of the new Boeing 787-9, Virgin Atlantic will deploy its aircraft on routes from London Heathrow to Boston from October 28, 2014; Washington from December 17, 2014, Newark from January 19, 2015 and New York from February 28, 2015.

Virgin Atlantic Airways will celebrate the 30th anniversary of its launch by introducing the Boeing 787-9 Dreamliner on its ‘Old England to New England’ route between London and Boston this winter, the carrier confirmed earlier this year. The airline’s first 787-9 is currently in assembly and is due to roll-out and fly this month and will be delivered to the airline in October 2014.

The aircraft, to be named ‘Birthday Girl’ is due to enter service on October 28, 2014 on the six times weekly London Heathrow – Boston Logan route replacing the A330 and A340s that currently serve the route in partnership with its transatlantic partner and minority shareholder Delta Air Lines. However, before that it will operate a media flight to Atlanta, home of Delta Air Lines.

The modern generation airliners will be initially utilised on Virgin Atlantic’s transatlantic network and after its Boston debut the type will be progressively introduced on routes to Washington DC, Newark and New York by the end of the first quarter of 2015 as additional aircraft are delivered.  Virgin Atlantic has 15 787-9s on order with options on ordering another eight and purchase rights on a further 20 aircraft.  It will be the first European operator of the new larger variant of the Dreamliner.

According to latest updates to the airline’s winter flight schedules, the 787-9 is provisionally planned to serve the London Heathrow – Washington Dulles route on a five times weekly basis from December 17, 2014, increasing to a daily schedule from January 23, 2015.  It is also due to debut on one of the carrier’s two rotations on the London Heathrow – Newark route from January 19, 2015 on a five times weekly basis and New York JFK route from February 28, 2015.

The airline will configure its 787-9 fleet in a three-class arrangement with a 31 seat Upper Class business cabin and seating for 35 passengers in Premium Economy and 198 in Economy.  The Premium Economy cabin will be arranged in a 2-3-2 layout providing additional space to the 3-3-3 cabin in Economy.

"We are extremely excited to be welcoming this aircraft to our fleet. After 30 proud years of serving our customers around the world, this is going to revolutionise our airline and bring with it new innovations and a cutting edge product for them to enjoy,” Rob Bissett, network planning manager network & alliances, Virgin Atlantic Airways told The HUB during an interview at last night’s World Routes Saturday Reception in Chicago.

"The 787-9 will make up 40 per cent of our fleet by the end of 2017 which demonstrates our commitment to the Dreamliner as the centrepiece of our future fleet.  We're looking forward to the next 30 years," he added.

The aircraft will benefit Virgin Atlantic’s passengers on longer-haul routes where the on-board experience and fuel efficiency benefits of the new airliner will be further amplified. Alongside a host of passenger benefits, the latest Dreamliner brings substantial commercial and environmental benefits.  These include being 21 per cent more fuel efficient on a per flight basis than an equivalent sized aircraft, as well as having a 60 per cent smaller noise footprint than aircraft of a comparable size, Bissett said.

The new aircraft type will play an important role in Virgin Atlantic's future network strategy. Although the 787-9s will initially strengthen its transatlantic business partnership with Delta Air Lines, the aircraft will also be utilised in time on Virgin Atlantic's existing routes from Heathrow, Gatwick and Manchester to the Caribbean, Africa, the Middle East and Asia and later to open new markets.  When it first ordered the aircraft the carrier said it would be be "instrumental in introducing new routes" like Bangkok, Melbourne, Rio de Janeiro, Seattle, Toronto and Vancouver and due to its long range both Perth and Hawaii were also under consideration.

You can watch ten weeks of work on Virgin Atlantic's 787 condensed into a three minute video, below:

We spoke in more detail with Rob Bissett in Chicago about the imminent arrival of the 787 and this is what he had to say...

Q) How did you develop your route strategy for the debut of the aircraft? Why did you select the specific routes you did?
A) "We’ve always seen the 787 as a game changer for our network particularly for longer routes. These are where we really get the biggest benefits of the fuel efficiency so it was always a case of trying to get them on to those routes as quickly as possible. However, the early deployments are driven by other operational considerations primarily with regards to crew training so they start off flying the slightly shorter sectors to the East Coast of the USA. What this does enable though is for us to put a brand new aircraft type onto these key business routes and I’m sure they will bring the iconic Virgin flair into those markets before we start to roll them out across the world."

Q) How will the arrival of the 787-9 afford you an advantage over rivals in the Transatlantic market?
A) "Obviously, as with any new aircraft type, what it brings is a brand new product and service to those markets. Regular travellers will be well familiar with the renowned Virgin service however in this case it will be coupled with a quieter cabin, lower cabin altitude, and larger windows and also marks the arrival of Wi-Fi connectivity into the fleet. With the 787-9 and our recently announced expansion into the US with our Joint Venture partners Delta Air Lines, we are in a great position to strengthen our already strong presence in the UK-US Transatlantic market."

Q) What opportunities does the 787-9 provide for future network growth?
A) "With the excellent performance levels delivered by the 787-9, we’re able to look at network expansion in a new light. The fuel efficiency makes previously marginal opportunities more compelling and also removes any range limitations that we might have with similar size aircraft in the fleet. Having a smaller and more efficient aircraft certainly gives us more confidence when looking at new routes. The range capability also means that 11+ hour sectors which may have looked unattractive on other types in the past are now right back in the mix. It really does offer us a fantastic new tool in our future network decisions."

Q) Why did you select the 787-9 over the smaller -8 variant and does the -10 appeal for future fleet growth?
A) "The 787-9 is actually a much better complement to our existing fleet in terms of its size. For us the 787-8 would really have been too small. The 787-9 gives us more flexibility to interchange aircraft where needed and also means we can benefit from its larger capacity during the peak periods of the year.  The 787-10 certainly gives us some options to evaluate in the future and it will of course form part of our future fleet evaluations. However, at this stage we’re focussed on getting the 787-9s successfully on to the Virgin network."

Q) Why did you select this configuration for the airliner? Will you offer a standardised layout or will you seek a dual arrangement to support your business and leisure offerings?
A) "The configuration that we have managed to achieve is in some part driven by dimensions of the fuselage particularly with regards to where we can best place the three cabins and associated galleys and lavatories etc. That said, we have ended up with a great configuration which we are confident our passengers will really love.  We have looked at whether a separate leisure configuration would work for our 787s however at this time we’re unlikely to pursue that option and instead focus on a single cabin layout for use on our Heathrow routes."

Q) Can you confirm the delivery timescale for the aircraft?
A) "The first aircraft is due to be delivered in October with an additional sixteen aircraft (plus four options) to join over the next few years. However, there have been significant delays in production so far which we really hope are now behind us."