Welcome to a new Travel Radar series of Articles. In these episodes called “Fleet Profiles” we delve into the stories of the current fleet of an Airline. In this episode we look at the fleet of the iconic Red & Silver clad jets of Virgin Atlantic! Which is fitting given the airline is 35 years old in 2019!
G-VFAB was the airlines first Boeing 747-400 and was the flagship from 1990 to 2015.
With 455 seats across First, Business and Economy, the Boeing 747-400 has been the mainstay of the Virgin Atlantic fleet since 1990. Following on from the early Boeing 747-200 which launched Virgin Atlantic in 1985, the Boeing 747-400 provided higher passenger capacity, better fuel and crew efficiency and extended range.
In their final years, the Boeing 747 fleet is spread through Manchester and London Gatwick.
The first Boeing 747-400 was delivered in 1990 and given the registration G-VFAB “Lady Penelope” after the iconic British character from the Gerry Anderson 1960’s puppet show “THUNDERBIRDS”.
Virgin Atlantic Boeing 747-400 departing London Heathrow in 2016. The following year, the aircraft type exited regular LHR services.
Some of the younger Virgin Boeing 747s delivered from 2001, were originally destined to the doomed original Alitalia, which cancelled its orders in the early 2000’s. The youngest Boeing 747 in Virgin’s fleet of eight air frames is G-VROY “Pretty Woman”, delivered in October 2001. One feature of Virgin’s Boeing 747 fleet is the Economy Class section that takes up the “Upper Deck”, making it one of few airlines to not have the 747 Upper Deck occupied by a premium cabin. An experience I once enjoyed on G-VXLG “Ruby Tuesday” in late 2018.
The upper deck economy class cabin of the Boeing 747-400 G-VXLG “Ruby Tuesday”
In 2014, a Virgin Atlantic Boeing 747 made the headlines following an emergency landing at London Gatwick, G-VROM a.k.a “Barberella” had a hydraulic fault in its right undercarriage on a routine flight on December 29th 2014. Despite the dangers faced by the crew of the plane landing and collapsing on its faulty right side, the crew pulled off a successful and by the book emergency landing, the plane ceased on the runway and everyone safely evacuated, the plane still remains in service 5 years on!
The flight deck of a Boeing 747-400, unlike the 747-200, it has a brown coloured frame with the “glass cockpit” ICT system to replace the Flight Engineer.
Sadly as progression is gathering, and the fleet are reaching 20 years old, the Boeing 747s are retiring from the Virgin Atlantic fleet, the last example leaving in 2021. The Boeing 747 is no longer a regular part of their main hub at London Heathrow, but London Gatwick and Manchester Ringway are still graced by the pressence of the Virgin “Queen of the Skies”. 2022 will be the first year in Virgin Atlantic’s history without the Boeing 747 which has been the stalwart over 3 versions since its inception.
In flight on a Boeing 747-400 of Virgin Atlantic over the North Atlantic.
All hope is not lost on Virgin’s iconic Boeing 747, as G-VWOW “Cosmic Girl” is staying on as the launch ship for the Virgin Galactic program sponsored by the airline, though she now sports the US Registration “N744VG”.
A Boeing 747-400 departing a wet Manchester Airport for the sunny US or Caribbean in December 2017.
Boeing 787-9 Dreamliner
The modern and futuristic design of the Boeing 787 Dreamliner flight deck. (Above)
A brand new B787, G-VZIG at Manchester Airport in 2015 on a crew training flight. (Below)
October 10th 2014, and becoming the 3rd UK Airline (behind rival airlines Thomson Airways/TUIuk and British Airways) to receive the latest technological advanced long haul Boeing airliner, G-VNEW a Boeing 787-9 arrived into London Gatwick from Paine Field, Seattle. Marking the airline’s 30th Birthday and a new era of twin jets taking on the baton held by the “quadjet” Boeing 747 & Airbus A340 fleets, the Dreamliner was the newest add to the airline.
The purple tinted mood lighting on a Boeing 787 overnight “Red-Eye” flight from Seattle to London.
By early 2017, the Boeing 747s were out of London Heathrow as the Boeing 787-9 fleet grew and took over. All 17 aircraft as of July 2019 are based at London Heathrow. The airline taking the air frames from October 2014 through to April 2018.
G-VSPY, one of the 17 LHR-based Boeing 787-9 Dreamliners at London Heathrow Terminal 3.
The Boeing 787-9 operate with a 3 class configuration of 264 seats. I had the chance in 2018 to fly from Seattle to London Heathrow on the new aircraft flying on G-VCRU “Olivia Rae” which is dedicated to the late daughter of one of Virgin’s long standing cabin crew.
G-VCRU was the first Boeing 787 I flew long-haul on, here it is on the ground at Seattle/Tacoma (Above) and the wing view from inside (below) at 39,000ft about 12 hours later.
Various Boeing 787’s in 2018/19 have been stored due to engine troubles from their Rolls-Royce Trent 1000 power plants, however the airline has been getting their planes back into the sky, non of their 787 aircraft are listed as stored as of July 2019 according to a leading aircraft log website.
The arrival of G-VNEW in October 2014 ushered in a new era for Virgin Atlantic for its 30th Anniversary.
With the entrance of the first brand new Airbus A330-300 in 2012, the airline famous for its “4 engines 4 long haul” slogan against rival airlines utilising Boeing 777’s and Boeing 767’s across the Atlantic, was a sign the airline was starting to move from its well established Boeing 747 and Airbus A340 fleets as they were becoming fuel thirsty and uneconomical to run in the wake of the 2008 Ressesion.
Operating a one-off VS69 flight on June 28th 2019, G-VNYC operated the inaugural LGBT Pride Flight.
The first of these Airbus A330-300 to arrive were G-VKSS & G-VSXY in February 2011. They quickly followed by the rest of the A330 fleet bringing the total to eight aircraft by the last delivery in November 2012, based between London Heathrow, London Gatwick and Manchester Ringway. Making the Airbus A330 the only aircraft to be seen at regularly all of Virgin Atlantic’s British bases since early 2017.
A parked up Virgin Atlantic Airbus A330-300 at London Heathrow in February 2019.
The aircraft are fitted out with a three cabin configuration able to carry a maximum passenger load of 264.
The Airbus A330-200 fleet is an odd move, but a clever one. Air Berlin went bankrupt and ceased operations in October 2017 and Virgin Atlantic took on their long haul fleet of Airbus A330-200 (which were also pre-owned by LTU Airlines which Air Berlin bought out in 2007).
With long term issues at the time with the Boeing 787, it meant these A330-200 could operate leisure routes from Manchester and London Gatwick, whilst sending the Boeing 747-400 and Airbus A330-300 to London Heathrow to cover the mechanically impaired older Boeing 787’s. When the issues were resolved, Virgin would then be able to use them for expanding their route network or adding extra capacity.
The arrival of the Airbus A330-300 from 2011-2012 signalled the shift from “quad-jets” to “twin-jets”, a recent trend for airlines across the globe during the throughout the last 10 years…
A notable event of recent times, G-VNYC an Airbus A330-300, operated on June 28th 2019 the VS69 “Pride Flight” from London Heathrow to Newark Liberty. Marking both 50 years of LGBT Pride and 35 years of Virgin Atlantic.
Ground crew at LHR T3 preparing an Airbus A330 of Virgin Atlantic for its next trans-Atlantic sortie!
In 2018, the airline cancelled an order from over 10 years earlier for 6 Airbus A380-800 and converted them to a mix of Airbus A350 and Airbus A330-900neo, the A330-NEO will eventually replace the second hand Airbus A330-200 and Airbus A330-300 as they reach retirement. Currently its not sure where Virgin Atlantic will eventually go with the new Airbus A330s, but time will soon tell!
Airbus A340-600 of Virgin Atlantic on arrival to London Heathrow. All the remaining A340-600 are LHR based for now.
An unsung hero and underrated aircraft, the Airbus A340-600 is a long range airliner that has fallen afoul of the recent 2008-2012 Ressesion, making the fairly young aircraft very unprofitable and with the rival Boeing 777, newer Boeing 787, successor Airbus A350-900 as well as larger Boeing 747-8i and Airbus A380 all making good causes to replace the jet right now, Airlines can’t wait to off load their uneconomic Airbus A340s.
Virgin Atlantic was the launch customer of the Airbus A340-600, however as of mid-2019, only 5 remain airworthy in the fleet.
The Airbus A340-600 carry 308 passengers on a 3-class configuration. Unfortunately the large number of passengers carried by the aircraft isn’t enough to save it in the modern world of “Twin Jets are best” method most airlines are turning to….
The Airbus A340-600 was the last “single-deck” long haul quad-jet to be designed, the A340 program was launched alongside the twin-jet Airbus A330 program.
With the Airbus A340-300 fleet dispatched by mid 2015, five final LHR based Airbus A340-600 remain, providing a larger capacity than the Airbus A330, but reducing training costs in the meantime as A330 and A340 pilots can fly the same aircraft type. But with Airbus A350’s on the horizon- the Airbus A340’s days are seemingly numbered. Which is a shame as the remaining planes are only 10-15 years old, given most long haul aircraft fly well into their mid-20’s.
The Airbus A340-300 was in service with Virgin Atlantic from 1993 until 2015. It was replaced by both the Airbus A330-300 and Boeing 787-9 Dreamliner in 2012/2015 respectively.
In early 2018, an Airbus A340-600 (G-VNAP) was returned to service as “Sleeping Beauty Rejuvenated” following a 2 year storage, mainly due to the Boeing 787 mishap on their engines. The plane was painted with a unique set of titles thanking the staff of Virgin Atlantic. The unmissable A340 sports the following message “a big Virgin Atlantic thank you” down both sides.
And thus completes the first edition of FLEET PROFILES, hope you have enjoyed the read, and I look forward to bringing another edition soon!