It started with Virgin being outbid by FirstGroup for the West Coast Mainline franchise that it has been running for the last 12 years. You can read our blog post with the details of FirstGroup’s bid here. Branson, it was reported, was livid, issuing an aggressive statement questioning the Government’s decision and FirstGroup’s competence almost immediately. This was followed by the announcement of an appeal and the launch of an online petition, which garnered 150,000 signatures. Branson even offered to run the service on a not-for-profit basis if the Government agreed to postpone the contract signing for two months.
Yesterday (28 August 2012) it was reported that Virgin had its lawyers working over the Bank Holiday weekend and is now planning a last minute legal challenge to prevent the Government from signing the contract, which is due to happen tomorrow and, which, according to the Transport Secretary Justine Keeling, is going ahead.
It’s all very gung-ho for the transport industry and I’m genuinely looking forward to the outcome. But what I find really interesting is the surprise announcement – released in the midst of this melee -that Virgin is proposing a three-times-daily airline service from London Heathrow to Manchester from next March.
When it was announced, many assumed Branson was simply throwing his toys out of the pram having lost West Coast Mainline. But I doubt this very much. I think the domestic airline has been part of the Virgin plan for some time and the timing of the announcement was merely coincidental.
The airline lost £80.2m last year. It has also lost its code share deal with BMI following BMI’s acquisition by IAG and its alignment with BA, which means it’s lost a significant chunk of its feeder routes, so something had to be done. And that something, it would seem, is the launch of a UK domestic network.
My question is: “Does this signal more of a strategic change in direction for Virgin Altantic, or will the IAG competition trustees charged with reallocating the BMI Heathrow slots see it as nothing more than smoke and mirrors to make them look like more of a credible option for those slots?”
The trustees will award these slots from summer 2013 and the decision will be made in the next couple of months, which also makes me think twice about the timing of the announcement.
Whatever the reason, though, the move by Virgin is potentially good news for the corporate travel buyer, as the likes of Virgin and BA start competing on value, service and price leading to increased frequencies and flight options, as well as better value for money.
David Chapple is event director of the Business Travel Show – you can challenge him on Twitter @btshowlondon or at firstname.lastname@example.org