Two years after emerging from bankruptcy protection, Virgin Atlantic is pushing for growth in India, which has become the third biggest market for the British airline globally as demand goes past what was seen in the pre-Covid period. India did not even feature in the top five two-three years ago.
Constrained by its own capacity and bilateral traffic rights, Virgin currently operates three flights a week from Delhi and Mumbai to London. The company is evaluating additional flights not just from these two cities but from other Indian metros as well.
Last year, the company signed a code-share agreement with India’s largest carrier IndiGo, to provide connectivity to Chennai, Bengaluru, Hyderabad, Kolkata, Ahmedabad, Amritsar and Goa. This arrangement helps flyers buy a single ticket for their whole journey.
Speaking to FE, Alex McEwan, country manager – South Asia, Virgin Atlantic, said, “The UK remains Virgin’s largest market followed by the US, but India is now the third largest market in the world, which makes it significant with promising growth. It has been a big revenue driver for us.”
Virgin has a fleet of a little under 40 aircraft, comprising mostly long-haul planes. The full-service airline, which started operations in India in 2000, is among the three largest carriers connecting India and the UK. Air India and British Airways are the other two.
As per data supplied by the Directorate General of Civil Aviation (DGCA), there has been a near tripling of customers at Virgin Atlantic compared to pre-Covid period. From 45,700 customers in the July-September quarter in 2019, the airline clocked close to 130,000 customers in the same quarter in 2022.
Virgin Atlantic claims to have a passenger load factor in the 90s for its flights to India. But due to lack of new fleet addition, the company will drive growth with its existing capacity for now.
“In some months, we were ahead of the pre-Covid period in areas like revenue and load factors. The market has made a complete recovery with our PLF being in the 90s,” McEwan added.
The strong uptick in overall demand is aided by demand from the corporate sector, whose rebound has surprised many. It is one of the reasons why Virgin chose to add a second service from Delhi.
“It is surprising how quickly the corporate travel sector has recovered because that is one sector we were really concerned about. Our corporate customers are travelling back with us in good numbers and their numbers are higher than pre-Covid, which is because of the additional flight from Delhi,” McEwan added.
Virgin’s prime competitor, British Airways, operates more trips to and from India since it serves more cities than just two. Both the airlines are bound by the air services agreement, which places limits on the number of flights operated by UK and India carriers.
Both countries can operate 56 flights each per week between London and Delhi/Mumbai. According to McEwan, both Virgin and British Airways are close to exhausting that cap.