One of the great UK business links to the Far East, the Virgin Atlantic service to Hong Kong, has been cut.
The route to the so-called special administrative region of China was first flown by Virgin when it was still a British colony in the early 1990s.
Operations on such intercontinental routes, rather than the transatlantic services for which it was more famed, lent Virgin the image of a global player, something that belied its lack of size compared with other international carriers such as its great nemesis and Heathrow and Gatwick rival British Airways.
Virgin Atlantic, which remains majority-owned by its founder Sir Richard Branson but is widely regarded as an operational arm of its 49 per cent shareholder Delta Air Lines of the US, has blamed the Russia-Ukraine crisis for not reopening the Hong Kong link. A Virgin Atlantic spokesman said: “After careful consideration we’ve taken the difficult decision to suspend our London Heathrow to Hong Kong services and close our Hong Kong office, after almost 30 years.
“Significant operational complexities due to the ongoing Russian airspace closure have contributed to the commercial decision not to resume flights.”
In reality, Virgin Atlantic has barely flown the route during the pandemic and not at all for nearly a year. It started selling tickets for a restart in March next year, but that plan has now been scrapped.
The airline used to fly between the UK and Australia via Hong Kong, its so-called kangaroo hop, but the Australian link was shelved in the last decade. Other international services to the likes of Tokyo, Mumbai and Cape Town have also been cut by Virgin over the years.
As Russian airspace is closed to western carriers because of the war in Ukraine, flights have to take the long way round between London and Hong Kong, which could take up to an hour and 50 minutes longer, the airline said.
After a near-death experience during the pandemic many are wondering whether Virgin Atlantic can re-establish itself as a viable carrier. Last year it carried just one million passengers, but even before the pandemic, its traffic volumes were between only five million and six million; pre-pandemic BA was doing 40 million.