UK long-haul specialist Virgin Atlantic is to acquire 14 Airbus A330-900s, with a further six on option, in a move that CEO Shai Weiss said positioned the London-based carrier for future growth. 

But he called on changes to slot allocation at Virgin’s London Heathrow base to make it possible for the carrier to achieve its ambition of being the UK’s second flag-carrier, alongside British Airways.

Announcing the order at the Paris Air Show, Weiss said that the new aircraft – to be delivered between September 2021 and 2024 – would replace the carrier’s existing fleet of A330-200s and -300s. By 2024, he said, the average age of Virgin Atlantic’s fleet would have been reduced to 5.7 years. The airline is expecting the imminent arrival this summer of its first of 12 A350-1000s.

Virgin Atlantic will buy eight of its A330-900s direct from Airbus, with the airline describing it as a firm order. The remaining six aircraft will be leased from Air Lease Corporation. Shai said that whereas five years ago Virgin Atlantic’s entire fleet was leased, it was now moving to “a more balanced operation” combining purchased and leased equipment. The list price for 14 A330-900s would be $4.1 billion.

The airline is also a Boeing 787 operator; asked whether the U.S. aircraft had featured in Virgin’s calculations prior to choosing the A330-900, Shai said all options, including the Boeing 787 and the A350-900, had been considered but that in some ways choosing the latest iteration of the Airbus design could be seen as a like-for-like purchase as the older-generation A330s left the fleet. 

Weiss declined to go into details on cabin configuration, but hinted that there could be “an interesting business configuration” for the new aircraft. 

He described the purchase as “much more than an order. It’s setting the scene for growth and our ambition to double our operation at Heathrow.” 

The planned third runway at the London hub, scheduled to be in operation around the middle of the next decade and giving a 50% increase in slots at the heavily slot-constrained airport, would give a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for Virgin to expand its footprint, he said. For that to happen, however, there would have to be a change to the regime for allocating slots there, which currently was “not fit for purpose.

“We believe it must change, to allow for the emergence of a second flag-carrier.”