Virgin Atlantic could make a dramatic return to Gatwick as early as next summer after its withdrawal from London’s second airport during the carrier’s near-death experience in the depths of the pandemic.
Buoyed by the strength of the demand for transatlantic travel after the reopening of routes last week, Virgin has confirmed that the resumption of flights at Gatwick is a case of when and not if.
Eighteen months ago, while on the brink of bankruptcy, it quit the airport after 36 years of services, shut down its operations and laid off or furloughed thousands of staff.
Now, with ministers set to launch a review of their suspension of use-it-or-lose-it rules, which demand that airlines utilise at least 80 per cent of their take-off and landing slots at airports if they are to retain flying rights, Virgin Atlantic could be forced into an early return to Gatwick if it wants a longer-term presence at the hub.
In response to demands from Gatwick and from Wizz Air, the expansionist central European discount carrier, for an end to “slot-hoarding” at the airport that would prevent the launch of new competition, Virgin Atlantic said: “We maintain our ambition to rebuild our presence at Gatwick as demand returns, revisiting a long, close and successful relationship with the airport.
“As travel restrictions are eased in further markets, we continue to see growing consumer confidence.”
While Virgin considers its position, Wizz could be the biggest beneficiary if ministers tell slot-blocking airlines to pass on their flying rights. Norwegian, for instance, now all but defunct as an international arline, held 10 per cent of Gatwick’s slots prior to the pandemic.
The expansion plans of Wizz were further in evidence at the weekend with a firm order and options for 196 new Airbus jets worth a notional $25 billion.
Grant Shapps, the transport secretary, is being urged to reinstate competition at Gatwick for next year’s aviation summer season, when airlines from March and April begin launching beefed-up flight schedules, especially to sunspots.
The rules also could also an issue for British Airways, which has been lossmaking at Gatwick for more than a decade. Pre-pandemic, it was the second largest operator at the hub with 17 per cent of slots.
BA has indicated that it plans to reopen a smaller operation at Gatwick, but has also insisted that it will not sell slots. That could mean it plans to transfer slots to Vueling, its sister Spanish holiday airline, or sublet the slots to other airlines in the short term.
Gatwick said that applications for flying rights at the airport for next summer were running at 20 per cent above its capacity.