Virgin Atlantic Starts Hunt for 747 Leisure-Fleet Successor

Richard Branson’s Virgin Atlantic Airways Ltd. said it’s ready to assess options for replacing an aging fleet of Boeing Co. 747 jumbo jets that form the heart of its long-haul leisure operation from London’s Gatwick airport.

Virgin has seven 747-400s coming off lease around 2019 and aims to choose replacements in the next 12 to 18 months, with Airbus Group NV’s A330 and A350 pitted against Boeing’s 787 stretch and 777, Chief Executive Officer Craig Kreeger said.

“Any of those would be in the consideration set,” Kreeger said yesterday in an interview in London at the unveiling of the U.K. carrier’s new crew uniforms, adding that an order would also need to include “some options to grow.”

Kreeger is seeking to return Virgin Atlantic to profit by the end of this year having taken over in February 2013, a month after Delta Air Lines Inc. agreed to buy a 49 percent stake in the Crawley, England-based company. Virgin already has 17 787-9s on order which it said last week will be deployed at its main London Heathrow hub for flights to the eastern U.S.

Leases on the Gatwick-based 747s could probably be extended if necessary, so that a decision on a replacement isn’t an urgent one, Kreeger said.

The existing version of the A330 wide-body is integral to Virgin Atlantic’s operations, according to the CEO, with Airbus currently examining a re-engined update that will cut fuel burn.

BA, Gulf Challenge

Kreeger confirmed interest in the 787-10, a plane Branson said last month might have a place in the lineup. Virgin will be the first European carrier to get the 787-9 variant of Boeing’s newest wide-body, with flights scheduled from October.

Airbus’s A350 is due for its first delivery, to Qatar Airways Ltd., later this year, while Boeing’s 777X, a successor to its popular long-range twinjet, is slated to enter production in 2017 with service entry in 2020.

An order for Airbus A380 superjumbos has been put on hold, with delivery deferred until 2018 at the earliest, as Virgin mulls whether it has room for the world’s largest passenger jet.

Virgin is already retiring comparatively inefficient Airbus A340-300s which are due to exit by the end of February, and -600s of which two are due to be retired at the beginning of the year. The last five 747-400s stationed at Heathrow are due to leave the fleet between September 2015 and July 2016.

Punk Heritage

Virgin’s revamp of crew uniforms comes as Kreeger seeks to maintain its trendsetting status in the face of service enhancements at carriers spanning closest rival British Airways, pioneer of flat-bed seats, to Gulf operators such as Etihad Airways PJSC, which will offer enclosed suites in its A380s.

“I think it’s essential for Virgin Atlantic to be truly Virgin Atlantic,” Kreeger said. “We represent a spirit of making things better for customers and doing it in a unique style with flare, and the uniforms speak to that.”

Designed by Vivienne Westwood, who found fame with her punk clothing in the 1970s in partnership with Sex Pistols manager Malcolm McLaren, the uniforms will be worn by 7,500 cabin crew, pilots, lounge staff and Virgin Holidays employees.

“Every time we have a new uniform, other airlines start to emulate and copy, so we have to keep revamping,” Branson said in an interview at the London event. He declined to comment on plans for the interiors of the 787 Dreamliners, which will account for more than half of the fleet by 2018.

The relationship with new shareholder Delta helped halve Virgin Atlantic’s 2013 loss to 51 million pounds ($87 million) as sales gained 4.9 percent to 2.98 billion pounds.

Kreeger said he still aims to return the company to profit by the end of this fiscal year. British Airways, a unit of International Consolidated Airlines Group SA, boosted operating profit 73 percent last year to 651 million pounds.

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