LONDON — Virgin Atlantic has placed a long rumored order for 12 Airbus A350-1000, becoming the 11th customer for Airbus’ largest A350XWB variant.

The order, valued at $4.4 billion at list prices (and anywhere from $2.3-$2.6 billion applying standard discounts), includes eight new firm orders for the type and four new aircraft on long-term leases from Air Lease Corporation (ALC) with a lease option for a fifth aircraft.

The firm orders will be delivered beginning in 2019 while deliveries of leased aircraft will commence one year later in 2020.

ALC has 26 A350s on order in all, but just 5 A350-1000s, so Virgin will more or less exhaust its ordered A350s. With the new firm orders, the A350-1000 has now sold 189 copies, slightly closing the gap with rival Boeing’s 777X though the latter aircraft family has sold 306 copies across two variants.

Sir Richard Branson, Virgin Atlantic Founder (Center) joins Airbus John Leahy and Fabrice Bregier (Left) during the announcement. (Credits: Chris Sloan)
Sir Richard Branson, Virgin Atlantic Founder (Center) joins Airbus John Leahy and Fabrice Bregier (Left) during the announcement. (Credits: Chris Sloan)

At a press conference announcing the order, Virgin Group founder and figurehead Richard Branson stated that his own development of a composite airframe in the early 2000s “inspired” him to look at this airplane.

Virgin Atlantic CEO Craig Keeger added that “The A350-1000 plays a pivotal role in our [Virgin Atlantic’s] fleet program, helping to create one of the youngest, cleanest, greenest fleets in the sky.

A350-1000 will operate from both Heathrow and Gatwick

The A350-1000 is planned to operate from both Virgin’s home base at London Heathrow and its leisure hub at London Gatwick, with Heathrow getting first dibs on the new Airbus wide body.

While the airline has not confirmed the configuration of the new A350-1000s, there are some indications that the configuration would be harmonized between planes flying “business” routes from Heathrow and Caribbean ones from Gatwick with “three classes of customer service in the A350’s distinctive Airbus ‘Airspace’ cabin.”

But the benefits of harmonizing the fleet configurations is limited by the fact that Virgin has no way of rotating A350-1000s between Heathrow and Gatwick as the two hubs do not share any destinations.

With that in mind, it is certainly possible that Virgin will opt to split the A350-1000 into two different configurations, one sub-fleet seating about 300 passengers with a heavy cabin (akin to the A340-600s) for Heathrow business routes, and a leisure high-density configuration closer to 370 passengers for Gatwick (and Manchester) leisure routes.

A350-1000 gives Virgin Atlantic an efficient fleet mix

With the A350 in tow, Virgin will have settled on a three (and in the long run two) aircraft fleet of jets. Depending on how it positions the A350-1000 sub-fleets, it would have coverage from ~265 seats (Boeing 787-9 and A330-300) to ~300 seats to ~370 seats (both A350-1000) while only operating two variants assuming the 787-9 replaces the A330-300s in the long run.

The A340-600s will be replaced by a mix of 787-9 deliveries and A350-1000 ones, while the 747-400s will be replaced entirely by the A350-1000. Then there’s the (not-so) little matter of Virgin’s order for 6+6 Airbus A380 aircraft, deferred until 2018 for the moment.

The A380 order is dead

During the press conference, Branson maintained that the orders for the 6 A380s remain on the books, stating “we are still evaluating for the future whether or not to take delivery [of the A380s].”

But there was never any chance of Virgin canceling its A380 order at an Airbus press conference – that would undo all of the good PR from the A350-1000. The fact remains that with the A350-1000s replacing the 747s, there’s no role left for the A380 in Virgin’s fleet.

In fact even Airbus referred to the A350-1000 as Virgin’s new “flagship,” a tacit admission that the A380 order is dead and gone. Our expectation is that at some point (perhaps when Airbus next has good news on the A380), Airbus and Virgin will quietly convert the 6 A380s into 8-10 additional orders for the A350-1000.

Chris Sloan reported from Farnborough and Vinay Bhaskara from Boston.