Published on October 4th, 2015 | by Jim Lee0
Virgin Atlantic’s ‘Little Red’ domestic UK service calls it a day
On 26th September, Virgin Atlantic (‘Virgin’) finally terminated its ‘Little Red’ domestic operations just under 2½ years after it launched with such fanfare on 31st March 2013. With its demise we now take this opportunity to look at its brief history.
Virgin Atlantic secured nine of Little Red’s 12 London Heathrow slot pairs, as part of a European Commission remedy package, when British Airways (BA) acquired bmi. This allowed them to enter the UK domestic market. Virgin had long sought entry into what it considered, a lucrative market, believing that it would feed large numbers, into their long haul network out of Heathrow.
To quickly take advantage of the opportunities provided by the European Commission decision, Virgin entered into a ‘wet lease’ arrangement with Aer Lingus, whereby the Irish carrier was to provide four Airbus A320 aircraft, complete with crew, maintenance, and insurance (ACMI), for a three year period.
Aer Lingus put in a considerable effort and detailed preparations to ensure the operation, which Virgin branded as ‘Little Red’, was up and running in a very short time span. It was a considerable achievement by Aer Lingus requiring a cross-functional effort on behalf of 21 departments in Aer Lingus, involving 130 staff, to ensure everything was ready in time. 98 new cabin crew were trained, while 40 pilots were recruited to cover the new operation. All cabin crew groups underwent a three-week A320 safety course, before receiving customer service training in the UK, by Virgin Atlantic.
Of the four aircraft allocated to the service, two EI-DEI (renamed ‘Maggie May’) and EI-DEO (renamed ‘Queen of the Cobbles’), were from the Aer Lingus short-haul fleet, while the other two EI-EZV (‘Tartan Lassie’) and EI-EZW (‘Rosie Lee’), were former Meridiana Fly aircraft, which were leased by Aer Lingus from GECAS, specifically for the contract. These two aircraft were prepared for service at Singapore-Seletar, prior to delivery, while the two Aer Lingus aircraft were painted in Virgin colours by Eirtech Aviation at Shannon, one aircraft starting on 22nd March 2013 and the other on 29th March 2013.
Entry into service
This first aircraft, EI-DEO, was ferried from Shannon to Dublin on 28th March for completion of its cabin interior and makeover to Virgin’s own décor. It was delivered to Manchester on 30th March as the EI982 and operated the inaugural Manchester – Heathrow service, the VS3046, the following morning.
The Manchester – Heathrow route was operated at a frequency of four round trips per day. The second aircraft EI-DEI, was then prepared for entry into service, undergoing maintenance and repainting at Shannon, from 28th March 2013, before positioning Shannon – Dublin on the afternoon of 4th April, as the EI980. It then positioned Dublin – Edinburgh in the early hours of the morning of the 5th April, as the EI982, to operate the inaugural Edinburgh – Heathrow service, that morning, as the VS3012. The service was at that stage operated at a three per day frequency.
Meanwhile, work has been progressing in Singapore-Seletar on preparing the two GECAS for the Virgin contract. EI-EZV arrived in Dublin on the afternoon of 3rd April, just before 16:00 on delivery, having routed Subang – Colombo – Abu Dhabi – Sofia – Dublin. After some further cabin modifications at Dublin, it positioned Dublin – Aberdeen, early on the afternoon of 8th April, as the EI982, in order to be in place for Aberdeen – Heathrow operation. It subsequently entered service the following morning, inaugurating services on the Aberdeen – Heathrow route as the VS3026. This service was also operated at a three per day frequency.
Finally on 11th April, the fourth aircraft, EI-EZW, arrived in Dublin at 14:20 on delivery, having routed Seletar – Male – Abu Dhabi – Sofia – Dublin. On the evening of 13th April, it positioned Dublin – Heathrow as the EI890P. It then began operations as the VS3025 on the Heathrow – Aberdeen route. The arrival of the fourth aircraft, allowed ‘Little Red’ to increase frequency on the Heathrow-Edinburgh route to six services a day, with effect from 15th April.
Over the 30 months of the contract operation, the aircraft returned to Dublin for maintenance and on such occasions other aircraft from the short haul fleet were substituted. For the duration of the contract, all maintenance, rostering and daily flight duties of pilots and cabin crew were organised and controlled from Dublin. Line maintenance was undertaken in the UK. In Heathrow, it was provided by Aer Lingus’ own line maintenance operation there. At Manchester, it was provided by Monarch Airlines who also provided A Checks there on all four aircraft. SR Technics provided line maintenance in Edinburgh and BMI Regional in Aberdeen.
Operation of the service
By the end of 2013 ‘Little Red’ had dropped one of its four daily flights on the London to Manchester route. At that stage it was being widely reported that the service, and other ‘Little Red’ domestic routes, had been experiencing poor passenger loads. Some flights, it was reported, had operated with passenger loads of just 10%. According to Virgin, bookings grew steadily in the first part of 2014, with the airline enjoying what was described as, “excellent customer feedback”. It indeed delivered leading customer service and excellent on-time performance at Heathrow and good reliability, thanks to the support offered by Aer Lingus. However, demand was predominantly from point to point customers, rather than connecting traffic. High levels of connections onto Virgin Atlantic’s long haul network were vital to the success of ‘Little Red’ and without these transfers it was unfortunately not able to make a positive contribution to Virgin Atlantic’s network.
Virgin Atlantic signals the end of ‘Little Red’
On 6th October 2014, Virgin Atlantic announced its intention to cease its Little Red operation in September 2015. Its daily services between London Heathrow and Manchester were to continue until the end of March 2015, while flights between Heathrow and Edinburgh and Aberdeen were to continue throughout summer 2015, with the final flights scheduled for September 2015. At the time of the announcement, Virgin insisted that ‘Little Red’ had “delivered for consumers”, flying “well over a million passengers between London, Scotland and Manchester”. However, official figures published by the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA), confirmed earlier suspicions of low loads, and showed Little Red’s load factor was just 37.6% in 2013. The statistics showed little improvement for 2014, but they still remained below a 50% load factor on a monthly basis.
Virgin Atlantic Chief Executive Craig Kreeger said: “Little Red came about through an enduring passion at Virgin Atlantic to make a difference for our customers. We really wanted it to be a success and everyone involved worked extremely hard and has given it their best efforts. It was always a huge challenge on behalf of the consumer, as the totally inadequate number of slots made available by the European Commission did not deliver close to BA’s network position, even when supplemented by our own slots to fly between Heathrow and Manchester.
He went on “We’re very grateful for all of the support and goodwill shown to Little Red in Scotland and Manchester, where we received a warm welcome. I would also like to personally thank the Little Red team who have been fantastic ambassadors providing exceptionally high levels of customer service. We look forward to continuing to work with the Little Red cabin crew as we will be offering them roles on our long haul operation when these services end.”
The President of Virgin Atlantic, Sir Richard Branson, added:
“When the competition authorities allowed British Airways to take over British Midland and all of its slots, we feared there was little we could do to challenge BA’s huge domestic and European network built through decades of dominance. To remedy this, we were offered a meagre package of slots with a number of constraints on how to use them and we decided to lease a few planes on a short term basis to give it our best shot. The odds were stacked against us and sadly we just couldn’t attract enough corporate business on these routes. We will stop flying the Little Red services between Manchester and London at the end of March 2015 and the Aberdeen and Edinburgh services at the end of September 2015.
“The team did their absolute best to make a go of it and I thank them all for their amazing efforts. In the meantime, keep flying on Little Red where you’ll continue to get amazing offers and great service” he concluded.
The daily services between Heathrow and Manchester continued until the 28th March 2015, when EI-DEO operated the final ‘Little Red; service on this route, the VS304 to Manchester. The aircraft then positioned Manchester – Dublin as the VS879, arriving at 22:33. It then underwent some minor modification to bring it back to Aer Lingus specifications. On 1st April, EI-DEO returned to Aer Lingus service operating the EI361 Dublin – Warsaw. Still in Virgin colours, it was ferried from Dublin to Shannon on the afternoon of 29th April, as the EI990, where it was painted in a special Irish Rugby Football Union (IRFU) colour scheme, following the announcement of a three-year sponsorship deal with the IRFU, which designated Aer Lingus as the ‘official airline of the Irish rugby team’. The aircraft was rolled out on 9th May, following painting by Eirtech in the new scheme, which featured images of four prominent players. The aircraft, which carried the name ‘Green Spirit’, departed Shannon as the EI991 later that night at 21:23, arriving in Dublin at 21:53.
The aircraft remained on stand for most of the following day, before it made a surprise departure to Shannon, again as the EI991, departing at 18:23 and arriving in Shannon at 18:52. The move was unexpected as the aircraft was not due to enter service until the 11th May on the London route. Shannon’s based A319 EI-EPS, had positioned Shannon – Dublin as the EI990 after operating the EI387 from London-Heathrow, but at revised timings. Because of this, EI-DEO operated the EI386 Shannon -Heathrow departing 19:34 and arriving in Heathrow 20:32. It returned to Dublin, operating the EI183, landing at 23:15. After the additional tasking, the aircraft formally entered service on the morning of 11th May operating the EI230 to London-Gatwick, departing at 07:26 and arriving in Gatwick at 08:33. Two Heathrow rotations were then operated before the final flight of the day, the EI184, saw the aircraft overnight in Heathrow. Since then the ‘Green Spirit’ has become a regular sight across the Aer Lingus short haul network.
Virgin’s Little Red finally bows out
Virgin’s Little Red finally ceased all operations on Saturday 28th September. The final flight was the VS3025, Heathrow to Aberdeen, operated by EI-EZV. It departed Heathrow at 20:30 some 16 minutes behind schedule and landed in Aberdeen at 21:29. It then positioned Aberdeen – Dublin as the EI993, landing at 23:41. Earlier, EI-DEI operated its final Virgin Atlantic Little Red service as the VS3010, from Edinburgh to Heathrow, landing ahead of schedule at 19:50. It then positioned Heathrow – Shannon for maintenance as the EI997, landing at 22:00. The third aircraft, EI-EZW operated its final Virgin Atlantic Little Red service as the VS3011 from Heathrow to Edinburgh, landing at 20:52, again ahead of schedule. It then positioned Edinburgh – Shannon for maintenance as the EI995, landing at 23:53.
Aer Lingus returned EI-EZV to service on 28th September, operating the EI544, Dublin to Nice departing at 11:05 and landing at 14:25 (local). However, the aircraft was unable to operate the return EI545, due to a technical issue and Aer Lingus positioned A320 EI-DVI to Nice as the EI990 to operate a ‘rescue mission’ for the passengers stranded by the now much delayed EI545. It arrived back in Dublin some 30 minutes after midnight on the 29th September, around eight hours late. Later that morning, EI-EZV positioned Nice – Dublin as the EI991, landing just after 11:00. The aircraft returned to service later that morning operating the EI552, Dublin – Lyon. It continues to operate services across the network as this piece was written.
With the cessation of the ‘Little Red’ operation, the slots surrendered by BA to operate it, will now be returned to BA. However, they remain available for airlines wishing to start operations or add frequency on the remedy routes. The withdrawal has raised concerns in Scotland over BA retaining a monopoly on Scottish routes to Heathrow despite competition from easyJet, Ryanair and Flybe to other London airports.
For Aer Lingus, who stated in its commentary on its 2012 results, that the operation made a profit similar to its short haul operation, is was a reasonably successful venture leading them to indicate that further such ACMI contracts with other carriers will be pursed. It sees this type of activity providing a lower risk opportunity for growth in comparison to organic expansion. In the short term the additional aircraft will be used to substitute for Aer Lingus A319 capacity which is being removed from service.
We will leave the final words on the ‘Little Red; operation to Mr, Kreeger, who in admitting at the time of the closure announcement, that the time lag between the takeover of bmi and ‘Little Red’ entering the market meant the operation initially faced an “uphill battle to win recognition and convert customers to its services”. He added: “While this challenged environment meant Little Red ultimately did not deliver the results we had hoped, this certainly will not dampen our enthusiasm to try new things in the future.”