Virgin Atlantic now has an official plan to handle the unexpected grounding of some of its 787 Dreamliner aircraft. The company will lease four Airbus A330-200 planes to help fill in while the 787s await repairs on their Rolls Royce Trent 1000 engines. A schedule for the substitute services shows the planes will be based in Manchester and that they might be around longer than initially expected.
The first two A330-200s will join the Manchester operations in March 2018, flying to JFK and Atlanta. Additional aircraft will join the fleet in mid-May, serving San Francisco, Boston and Barbados. The addition of Barbados comes as JFK’s substitution ends while the other routes will maintain the A332 service. The updated schedules will be filed in the GDS networks with bookings available from 10 December onward.
The company currently only has details for service through May but there’s a decent chance the A332s are in the fleet longer than that based on the company’s statements.
Initially, the aircraft will not have Premium Economy but we’ll look to retrofit our Premium Economy product onto aircraft later in 2018.
To retrofit the premium economy product on to a short-term lease plane is a reasonably significant move. If the engine repairs can be completed more quickly than currently expected that would not be necessary but the company is now planning that the issue will last longer than not. It is also unclear what the business class product on board will be.
In addition to the missing premium economy seating the leased A330s are not likely to carry inflight connectivity hardware on board. Virgin Atlantic’s A330 fleet today has Gogo 2Ku hardware on board while the 787s carry Panasonic Avionics‘ eXConnect kit. Passengers on these flights will not have either of those options available.
UPDATE: Rumor has the planes coming in as former Air Berlin aircraft so the connectivity issue might not be as significant. Also, that’s a decent business class product, albeit different from what Virgin Atlantic operates today.
Update 2: Looks like no wifi, even if it is the Air Berlin planes.
Basing the substitute planes at Manchester is interesting in that the 787s are not flying from that airport today. This means moving some of the other Manchester-based planes to Heathrow to fill in while the 787s are grounded and backfilling with the leased planes. Why not just directly swap the A330-200s one-to-one for the 787s? Most likely a combination of commercial factors play in to that decision. Among them, keeping the premium economy and connectivity products at Heathrow. That’s a larger business market so the improved amenities presumably sell better.
Virgin Atlantic also faces significant LCC competition at Manchester, particularly from a growing Thomas Cook. Boston and San Francisco will both be part of the summer rotation there. Using the less premium configuration can be more easily justified in that scenario.