MIAMI – The COVID-19 pandemic ensured that airlines had to get creative in how to increase revenue. Airlines such as British Airways (BA) have resorted to selling their cutlery in an attempt to raise money.

Passenger ticket sales have been a rarity over the last year, and airlines have been struggling to fill their seats and keep their heads afloat. Most have seen significant financial losses, leading to a heavy reliance on government aid which, for British airlines especially, has been hard to come by.

A Virgin Atlantic Boeing 787-9 Photo Credit: Alberto Cucini/Airways

A Change of Plan

2020 started on a very positive note for Virgin Atlantic (VS). The carrier announced plans for its newest “Clubhouse” lounge at Manchester Airport (MAN) to match its London counterparts. VS also saw significant expansion across its networks with new routes being added.

Destinations such as Cape Town (CPT) were to be relaunched, whilst new routes to Pakistan, India, and South America were to join Virgin’s network. Instead of new passenger routes, however, VS found itself adding destinations such as Milan Malpensa (MXP) and most recently, Harstad/Narvik Airport (EVE) for cargo only operations.

Airlines such as Ethiopian (ET) have relied heavily on cargo operations throughout 2020, and even showed they were able to make a profit as a result. VS has not been operating cargo flights quite as extensively as its African competitors, but they have been crucial for the United Kingdom’s (UK) efforts against the virus.

Virgin Atlantic Boeing 787-9 Image from Virgin Atlantic

A Different Look to the Cabin

Normally speaking, VS carries cargo in the leftover space once customers’ luggage has been loaded into the hold. With no customers and no luggage, VS has been able to offer a significantly increased cargo capacity – and the airline increased it even further by using nets to secure additional cargo to the passenger seats.

When passenger flying ground to a halt last year, demand for cargo was as strong as ever. On top of that was a pressing need to ship vast quantities of PPE and COVID testing kits into the UK. Along with other airlines, VS lead the way in bringing these vital supplies back to British shores.

Not only has VS been helping at home, but they’ve been assisting UNICEF in Africa as well. Along with other members of the Virgin group, the carrier operated flights onto the African continent delivering essential PPE equipment for frontline health workers. Back in November, the airline’s cargo operation unveiled new capabilities as it prepared to participate in the logistical complexities of distributing COVID-19 vaccines around the world.

Photo from Virgin Atlantic

Challenges for VS Crew

These special cargo flights aren’t however without their challenges. Countries such as China and South Africa wouldn’t allow crew to disembark the aircraft. This meant the airline’s crew needed to operate on extended duties to get the flight done on the longer legs. Crews compromising of seven pilots and four cabin crew were needed to ensure the aircraft could operate there and back in one duty. This lead to duty periods well over 24 hours in some cases.

Captain Stephen Walker is one of Virgin Atlantic’s Boeing 787 Pilots who have flown a few of these flights. He said, “The first few ultra long haul trips were strange,” he explained. “And the worst one for me personally was arriving in Johannesburg only to fly straight back to the UK. Normally I’d be looking forward to a nice meal with a fun crew, and here I was taking off, three hours later. A real shock to the system!”

“As strange as these trips are, the flying is not really a big deal as when operating an aircraft without passengers, nothing major changes. Before each flight we are fully briefed, and as with any flight, a dedicated team on the ground are always keeping an eye on us and plan for all eventualities.”

Virgin Atlantic Airbus A350 | Kochan Kleps/Airways @dose.of.aviation

Moving Forward

Summer 2021 will be a pivotal few months for airlines around the world. There are major doubts as to whether airlines such as Virgin will be able to continue operating without another summer’s worth of revenue. The good news is that COVID-19 vaccinations are being rolled out throughout the world at pace.

This is giving some hope to both airlines and passengers. VS has been notorious of late for its financial losses, and even with its new restructuring agreement, that does not guarantee its survival beyond this summer.

Unfortunately, there are more challenges for British airlines. The UK’s government this week introduced its new hotel quarantine policies for travelers arriving from its “red list” countries. The challenges are large; however, it does seem that there might be some light at the end of the tunnel.

Featured image: Virgin Atlantic Boeing 747-443 G-VROY | Photo: © Luca Flores/Airways