VIRGIN Atlantic is bidding to launch flights between Edinburgh, Aberdeen and Heathrow in an attempt to boost long-haul passenger traffic against bitter rival British Airways.
The move would see Virgin Atlantic seek to increase air travel between Scotland and London after 15 years of Virgin Trains championing cross-Border rail travel as the greener alternative.
Virgin said its failure to retain the west coast main line franchise last week was coincidental.
Virgin Atlantic plans to operate at least three daily return flights on the routes from next March, as well as between Manchester and Heathrow.
From October, BA will operate 12 return flights from Edinburgh and eight from Aberdeen.
Virgin Atlantic will not know until December whether it has successfully bid for the necessary Heathrow landing “slots”, being relinquished by the sale in April of BMI – which flew on the routes – to BA parent firm IAG. Aer Lingus is among other airlines that may bid.
Virgin Atlantic, whose 20 destinations from Heathrow include the United States and Australia, derives one in four of its passengers via connecting flights from other UK airports.
However, BMI’s flights from Edinburgh and Aberdeen are due to be integrated with BA’s this autumn and Virgin Atlantic’s Scottish passengers will be forced to fly to Heathrow with BA, which boasts some 120 international destinations.
Virgin Atlantic bid unsuccessfully to buy BMI from its owner, German airline Lufthansa.
A Virgin Atlantic spokesman said: “We are not trying to set up a rival to EasyJet or Ryanair – this is all about connecting regional cities with our long-haul flights.”
Aviation analyst John Strickland, of JLS Consulting, said: “Virgin Atlantic’s move is understandable since they have been deprived of getting feed traffic with the sale of BMI.
“However, it is going to be quite a challenge to launch a short-haul network without incurring a financial loss.
“The frequency of flights will be relatively low compared to BA’s between Scotland and London, as is the scale of its route network from Heathrow.”
Laurie Price, a consultant with analysts Mott MacDonald, said: “Whilst Virgin’s intentions are both laudable and predictable in the interests of providing consumer choice at Heathrow, it will be interesting to see how long such domestic services are sustained.” He said the slots might be switched to more profitable long-haul routes.
Dr Richard Dixon, director of environmental campaigners WWF Scotland, said: “It is deeply ironic that Virgin should lose the west coast main line rail franchise one week and take up short-haul flights the next.
“Virgin Trains has done a very impressive job of showing you can attract people back from planes to trains, but now their considerable marketing effort will be thrown at trying to undo this success and get more people flying.”