VIRGIN Atlantic has escalated its battle with bitter rival British Airways (BA) on two lucrative Scottish routes after it offered “zero fares” – where passengers pay only taxes and charges.
BA has responded with £1 fares, weeks before the airlines go head-to-head between Edinburgh, Aberdeen and Heathrow, where BA has had a monopoly since taking over BMI last year.
Branded as “Little Red”, Virgin’s Heathrow flights to Manchester start on 31 March, followed by Heathrow to Edinburgh on 5 April and Heathrow to Aberdeen on 9 April.
The discounts for Scotland-London passengers follow the airlines offering free travel on the routes for those connecting on to their long-haul services from Heathrow.
The free or £1 one-way fares involve passengers paying around £45 for their ticket in taxes such as air passenger duty and charges such as fuel surcharges.
Virgin admitted it had sold zero fares on the routes, but was not currently offering them.
BA said it had tickets available with a £1 to £5 fare element.
Experts said Virgin faced a major challenge in making the routes viable, since it had half the frequency of BA’s flights, a far smaller long-haul network and its passengers would have to change terminals in London.
Virgin will also restrict passengers to 6kg of hand luggage, compared to 23kg on BA. There is no weight limit on EasyJet, which also flies Scotland-London routes, while Ryanair’s limit is 10kg.
Virgin will fly six return flights a day between Edinburgh and Heathrow compared to 12 by BA – its most frequent route.
The Scottish Passenger Agents Association, which represents travel agents, has expressed worries at Virgin’s lack of advertising until two weeks ago.
President Kevin Thom, who welcomed the return of competition on the routes as good for passengers, said: “There is concern at the lack of publicity by Virgin Atlantic, which perhaps shows it is too London-centric.
“On some long-haul routes, BA does not charge the extra fare between Scotland and Heathrow, and this will be extended to others where it competes with Virgin Atlantic. That will make it even harder for Virgin.
“BA also has the advantage of having lounges for premium passengers in Edinburgh and Heathrow. Virgin does not have a lounge in terminal one at Heathrow, which will serve its Scottish flights.”
Douglas McNeill, an aviation expert at Charles Stanley stockbrokers, said: “BA will have to fight that bit harder forpassengers.
“I expect to see it trimming fares, and doing plenty of advertising to drive home the advantages of its frequency and broader range of destinations than Virgin.
“Both Edinburgh and Aberdeen are important to BA, above all because they feed into the transatlantic routes which are almost certainty the driver of its profitability.
“The economies of Edinburgh and Aberdeen are more wired into America than you might think, from Edinburgh being a financial services centre and Aberdeen’s oil economy.
“However, Virgin Atlantic’s brand is one of its big strengths, which punches way above its weight.”
A Virgin Atlantic spokeswoman said its bookings were “very healthy”.
Richard Tam, BA’s head of UK sales and marketing, said: “We are going to compete very vigorously and are pretty confident with what we are offering.”
Aviation analyst John Strickland, of JLS Consulting, said: “It is going to be a tough task for Virgin. BA has learned lessons from being complacent in the past when faced with competition.
“Virgin’s cabin baggage allowance is low, and when you start a new service you’d want to be in line with your rivals.”
Laurie Price, an aviation consultant with Mott MacDonald, said Virgin would fight hard because Sir Richard Branson, its president, “cannot afford to lose face” over the routes.
But he said Virgin Atlantic was simply filling BMI’s shoes “with a slightly better known brand on a very limited flight frequency”.