A war of words between two of Britain’s two biggest airlines over take-off and landing slots at Heathrow escalated further this morning, as Virgin Atlantic’s boss launched a fresh salvo against the dominance of British Airways owner International Airlines Group (IAG) at the airport.
Shai Weiss, Virgin Atlantic’s outspoken chief executive, revealed he had set up a dedicated website to demand the government reform the system it uses to give the slots out ahead of Heathrow’s imminent expansion.
The site includes a form for supporters to write to their constituency MP, calling for Virgin Atlantic be named the UK’s “second flag carrier” airline.
Weiss, a former executive at what is now Virgin Media, used a speech in London to launch a fresh broadside against IAG, minutes after British Airways boss Alex Cruz had walked off the same stage.
He said: “Looking ahead to 2050, people will not believe that the nation’s only true hub airport had just one home flag carrier in 2020.”
Heathrow currently allocates more than half of its take-off and landing slots to IAG, which also owns Irish carrier Aer Lingus and Spain’s Iberia.
The next largest groups at Heathrow are Lufthansa and Virgin Atlantic, with eight per cent and seven per cent of the slots respectively.
But with ambitious plans for a third runway in place, Virgin Atlantic has made a play to take a bigger share of capacity.
The airline has argued over recent months that a lack of competition at Heathrow was leaving customers with less choice on where they fly.
Weiss called for a “one-off intervention to correct a market failure” from the government. “Failure to act now will re-entrench the status quo.”
‘A case for change’
Speaking at the same event, Dan Micklethwaite, the Department for Transport’s aviation director, conceded there is “a case for change” on the slot allocation system.
He said the impending third runway at Heathrow is a “once in a generation moment where you get a significant amount of slots at a very constrained airport”. Slot guidelines are “not designed for that scenario,” he added.
But an IAG spokesperson said existing rules are “respected globally and allow for new airlines to get new slots”.
Deviations from these rules are “likely to benefit established airlines and would provoke retaliatory action by other countries that would not benefit consumers and limit choice,” they added.
A Heathrow spokesperson said: “One of the main benefits of expanding Heathrow is creating the capacity that will unlock competition amongst airlines, increasing choice and lowering airfares for passengers.
“Virgin Atlantic’s announcement is the latest signal of why we need to press on with the project. But to secure these benefits for passengers, the Government needs to reform the current slot allocation system.
“It must encourage competition and choice amongst all airlines in order to deliver for passengers, as well as promoting sustainable and responsible growth and domestic connectivity with any future regime.”