Virgin Australia is unlikely to return to international skies with large twin-aisle Airbus or Boeing jets until the later half of 2022, says CEO Jayne Hrdlicka.
The airline can serve destinations such as New Zealand, the Pacific Islands and Bali with its workhorse Boeing 737s – including the new 737 MAX 10s due from 2023, which Hrdlicka – speaking at a CAPA Centre for Aviation event today – said "will do a great job for us in more traditional short-haul (than longer) international routes."
However, its more substantive international network previously relied on the longer reach of a mixed fleet of Airbus A330s and Boeing 777s which new owners Bain Capital scrapped as part of its restructure and reboot of Virgin Australia, with the airline shifting its focus to a largely domestic network built around the Boeing 737.
The six leased A330s opened up Asia, including axed routes to Hong Kong and a new Brisbane-Tokyo service which was aborted weeks before its March 29 2020 launch as COVID-19 took hold.
Meanwhile, five Boeing 777-300ER jets took the trans-Pacific routes from Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane to Los Angeles under their wing.
The long-range long-haul outlook
While Virgin previously floated plans to relaunch long-range travel with up to eight fuel-efficient Boeing 787-9s, Hrdlicka said "we won’t go straight back to wide-body flying in the next 18-24 months."
But she noted that when the time comes to pull the trigger on those long-range jets, it would be a buyer's market.
"It's a good market for aircraft right now – narrow-bodies, wide-bodies – so I don’t think fleet will be a constraint."
While airlines continue to face "some timeframes and protocols that you can’t compress," Hrdlicka said that "having access to aircraft is much easier than it’s been probably in two decades, and the price per aircraft now is incredibly attractive."
New timeline for Tokyo
As reported earlier this week, Virgin Australia has asked the International Air Services Commission – a federal government body which oversees Australia's international airline activity, including routes and airport takeoff and landing slots – to extend its rights to the Brisbane-Tokyo route to 31 October 2021.
While the IASC has formally declared that the new Tokyo Haneda routes must be flown "from no later than 31 March 2021", Executive Traveller understands that the commission will meet with representatives of Qantas and Virgin Australia in early 2021 to consider a further extension.
That decision will be shaped by the government's own forecast of travel restrictions for 2021 as well as each airline's plans to resume flights between Australia and Japan – which in the case of Virgin Australia may now hinge on its partnership with ANA.
With regard to Tokyo, Hrdlicka said the airline was "maintaining flexibility with those slots, because we’ve got flexibility in aircraft, so I’m not giving you my projection on how long it’s going to take – it could be less, it could be longer – and we’ve got flexibility."
Reliance on partners
"I don’t think the most important thing to a traveller today is what your international network is going to look like," Hrdlicka said, adding "our frequent flyers have been really clear to us on what matters most to them, and that’s not it."
"Of course, it will become really important to them, and we’ve got a great mix of partners, so we’ll be able to augment what we’re not doing ourselves in the short term with partners."
Hrdlicka maintains that "our first priority is domestic Australia, that’s job one."
"Job two is preparing for international, and international will come back at some point in 2021. Whether it’s New Zealand or other short-haul, and we will be ready for that when it comes."
In terms of international partners, Hrdlicka singled out Delta Air Lines as " a really important partner for us to the US, and that’s a really strong relationship."
"Etihad is a really strong relationship, Singapore Airlines is a really strong relationship, so those are three really important anchors for the region, and then there’s a mix of other partners, which are also important but probably less top-of-mind at the moment."