Virgin Atlantic’s “Baby-Bus” – The Story Behind its A330-200s

On October 10, 2014 Virgin Atlantic (VS) took delivery of its first Rolls-Royce Trent 1000-powered Boeing 787-9 ‘Dreamliner.’

The jet was placed into service with the airline on October 28, flying from London Heathrow (LHR) to Boston (BOS); although a special flight had been operated a few days earlier to Atlanta (ATL), home of Virgin’s US partner and co-owner Delta Air Lines (DL). 

Speaking on the flight, VS founder Sir Richard Branson explained how the Dreamliner got “every detail right.” Later, the airline’s Chief Executive Craig Kreeger had called the 787 Virgin’s ‘flagship.’ 

Flagship Issues

However, just three years after introducing the state-of-the-art jet, issues were emerging with the 787s engines. During the summer of 2016, Boeing revealed that fan blades inside the Rolls-Royce power-plants were showing early signs of corrosion. 

The Rolls Royce Trent 1000 engines caused a headache for Dreamliner operators around the world. (Photo: Virgin Atlantic)

By March 2018, further inspections uncovered additional problems with the engines, namely their compressors. This led to regulators worldwide implementing more stringent ETOPS (Extended Twin-Engine Operations) requirements.

Checks meant that airlines would be required to take their 787s out of service while engineers examined the engines. VS was one of these airlines and needed a solution to fill this shortfall in capacity.

Initially, VS asked Delta for help, who offered up its Boeing 767s for its flagship London Heathrow (LHR) to New York (JFK) route. However, the onboard product was not up to Virgin’s standards and DL could simply not provide the capacity needed. VS required a solution.

Finding A Solution

Thus, in January 2018, Virgin announced that it was to take delivery of four 287-seat ex-Air Berlin (AB) Airbus A330-200s. 

Speaking at the time, Virgin Atlantic’s Vice-President for Operations Phil Maher stated that the A330s would add “resilience to the fleet, in light of an industry-wide shortage of Trent 1000 engines used on our Boeing 787 aircraft.”

‘Daydream Believer’ (G-VMNK) was the first to be delivered. (Photo: Virgin Atlantic)

The airline decided to use the introduction of this sub-fleet to trial its new ‘Upper Class’ product for its soon-to-be-delivered Airbus A350-1000s. A complete refurbishment of the four jets would cost around £10 million. However, VS would not complete retrofitting the new interiors until November. 

So, when the A330 was introduced into service from the airline’s Manchester (MAN) base on March 1, 2018, despite wearing Virgin’s iconic livery, the cabin remained the same as when in service with its previous owner.

Time lapse video of ‘Daydream Believer’ being painted into VS’s colours. (Video: Virgin Atlantic)

Thus the -200s entry-into-service was met with much criticism from passengers. The seat pitch in standard economy on the larger -300 is 31 inches. However, on the -200, this was reduced to 30 inches. The temporary ‘Premium Economy’ cabin offered a seat pitch of 34 inches. Passengers could, however, still enjoy a personal inflight entertainment system (IFE), USB charging and onboard wi-fi, all previously offered by Air Berlin.

Airbus A330-200 (G-VMNK) pictured at MAN Terminal 2. (Photo: See photo.)

Manchester was chosen so that the airline’s larger and already Virgin configured A330-300s could be sent to London Heathrow (LHR). The -200s arrival actually increased capacity at the North West hub by up to 20%, including the launch of a new non-stop flight to Los Angeles (LAX). The type was also due to operate the planned MAN to New Delhi Indira Gandhi International Airport (DEL). However, VS never launched the route due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Virgin’s association with the Airbus A330 began in June 2009 when the airline ordered ten of the larger -300 series jets. The Rolls-Royce Trent 700-powered aircraft were ordered to provide additional capacity ahead of the arrival of its 787 fleet. The deal was worth around US$1.2 billion. 

The A330-300 joined the fleet in April 2011. (Photo: Virgin Atlantic)

‘4 Engines 4 Long Haul’

The switch to twin-engined airliners was seen as somewhat of a climb down by the carrier. Virgin had always highlighted its preference for using the four-engined Boeing 747 and A340 for its long-haul operations. Indeed VS even used the advertising slogan – ‘4 engines 4 long haul’ painted on a number of its aircraft. 

In January 2010, VS moved further away from this moto when it cancelled six A340-600s still on order. 

The slogan adorned a number of its A340-600s and Boeing 747-400s. (Photo: Hannes Meyer/JetPhotos)

By December 2018, the first retrofit had been completed on the -200 sub-fleet. The work was carried out by Hong Kong Aircraft Engineering’s (HAECO) Xiamen unit and Swiss maintenance provider SR Technics. 

The overhaul included the installation of Virgin’s new Premium Economy cabin (referred to simply as ‘Premium’) with 35 seats offering 38 inches pitch. The Economy cabin also got a refreshed look while its Upper-Class Suites underwent a “complete transformation.” This saw a staggered 1-2-1 layout, giving all passengers direct aisles access. 

In typical Virgin style, the airline spun the new layout as “exclusive” and marketed the seat options with names like the “Love Suite”, the “Freedom Solo Suite”, and the “Corner Solo Suite.” Revamped seats featured fabric “entirely upholstered with natural and soft Espresso leather, underlining the cabin’s distinctive Virgin Atlantic flair”.

There were also new carpets and wall finishes, mood lighting, an upgraded IFE, modified lavatories and a customised trolley stowage unit on each aircraft. 

Daniel Kerzner, Vice President of Customer Experience, commented on the revamp: “Earlier this year, we acquired A330-200s to maintain our flying programme and were committed to refurbishing these aircraft to our high standards. We quickly gathered insights from our customers that have influenced the exciting product we’re launching later this year.”

Airbus makeover. (Video: Business Traveller)

“In only a few months, we’ve been able to source, design and manufacture new cabin interiors, which is a true testament to our teams and their focus on giving our customers a truly Virgin Atlantic experience. When life gives you lemons, we say – make sparkling lemonade!”

In Service

Once the retrofit was fully completed in January 2019, the jets settled well into operations. As well as Manchester’s North American routes, the -200 would also be used on thinner leisure rotations from London Gatwick (LGW) such as Antigua (ANU), Barbados (BGI) and Saint Lucia (UVF).

G-VMNK seen rotating at a rather soggy Manchester. (Photo: AirlinesFleet.com)

But their time with the carrier would be cut short. Following the grounding of the airline’s fleet in March 2020 due to the global pandemic, Virgin announced that the sub-fleet would be retired from scheduled revenue service along with its iconic Boeing 747s. According to ch-aviation, the jets continued to operate ferry and test flights around the UK. 

Despite having a four-year lease on the jets, the writing was on the wall for the smallest member of the VS fleet. 

Several of Virgin’s A330s were stored at Doncaster Sheffield Airport (DSA) during the pandemic. (Photo: Doncaster Free Press)

G-VMNK was ferried to Düsseldorf (DUS) on August 19, 2020. G-VMIK went to Knock (NOC) on September 17, 2021, along with G-VWND on February 14, 2022. G-VLNM was the last to leave the fleet when it was ferried to Lourdes/Tarbes (LDE) on May 12

Speaking at the time, a spokesperson for the airline said: “While we’re sad to see them go, this opens the door for the arrival of our younger and more efficient aircraft.”

However, while one variant of the A330 leaves the fleet, a new type is on its way. On June 17, 2019 the airline announced it had placed an order for up to 20 Airbus A330neo (new engine options) jets. The initial deal saw a firm order for eight and a further six being taken from US lessor Air Lease. It also has six additional options on the Rolls-Royce Trent 7000 powered -900 series aircraft. Virgin will use them to replace its -300ceo (current engine option) jets which it expects to have retired by 2024.

The new additions will seat 262 passengers, with 32 in Upper Class, including two retreat suites and 30 Upper-Class seats. Premium will seat 46 with a 38″ seat pitch. Meanwhile, standard economy has room for 156 passengers with 31″ seat pitch and 28 Economy Delight seats with 34.” Much of the cabin layout was thanks to the trials completed on the -200 aircraft. 

The A330neo will join the fleet later this year. (Photo: Virgin Atlantic)

The A330neos first flight is scheduled for October 12, 2022 from London Heathrow (LHR) to Boston (BOS). VS will then put it to work on its services to Tampa (TPA), Miami (MIA) and New York (JFK).

The Fleet

G-VMNK ‘Daydream Believer’ (MSN 403)

This was the first A330-200 to be delivered to Virgin Atlantic on February 2, 2018. The jet had started life as D-ALPA, delivered to LTU International Airways (LT) on May 18, 2001. 

Following LTU’s takeover by Air Berlin, the jet would become part of the AB fleet on April 1, 2011. It was scrapped in Germany in July 2022 and subsequently up-cycled.

Click an image below to enter the gallery…

G-VMIK ‘Honky Tonk Woman’ (MSN 432)

‘India Kilo’ quickly followed, arriving the day after ‘Daydream Believer.’ It joined the LTU fleet as D-ALPB on November 9, 2001, before being taken over by AB on April 1, 2011. The aircraft is in the process of being scrapped.

Click an image below to enter the gallery…

G-VWND ‘Scarlett O’Hara’ (MSN 476)

This was the third to join the fleet on March 18, 2018. ‘November Delta’ was formally registered D-ALPF. It joined LTU on May 29, 2002, and AB on April 1, 2011. It too has been partially scrapped.

Click an image below to enter the gallery…

G-VLNM ‘Strawberry Fields’ (MSN 322)

The fourth and final -200 had a more varied history than its counterparts. Newly delivered to Sabena (SN) as OO-SFT on February 3, 2000 it was taken over by Lufthansa (LH) on October 15, 2002, and re-registered D-AIMD.

Here it remained until November 11, 2006 when Swiss International (LX) would operate the jet as HB-IQQ. AB took the jet on July 13, 2011 where it was re-registered as D-ABXB. Today it is stored at LDE.

Click an image below to enter the gallery…

N.B. The author does not own the rights to any of the images included in this article unless otherwise stated.

© Jet Back In Time by Lee Cross

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