Virgin Atlantic intends to fly direct to Cape Town.

The airline announced its plans for a vastly expanded route network out of London Heathrow – including Cape Town – challenging what it calls the International Airlines Group’s (IAG) ‘stranglehold’ over the airport. IAG, which owns British Airways, Aer Lingus, Iberia and other airlines, currently holds around 55% of Heathrow slots. Joint venture partners Virgin, Delta and Air France KLM hold less than 10% between them.

British Airways currently operates the only direct service between London and Cape Town, following the insolvency of the Thomas Cook Group and the cancellation of the Thomas Cook Airlines service. Having no competitors on the route could have negative consequences for the industry.

Virgin’s expansion plans are dependent on the third runway at Heathrow being constructed, and whether the UK government reforms the way new Heathrow slots are allocated to enable the creation of a second flag carrier at the airport. If Virgin Atlantic gets the slots it is pursuing, and it can get the aircraft it needs to service the routes, it can move on its expansion plans, says Mandy Lerena, Virgin Atlantic’s commercial manager for South Africa.

This would see Virgin operate flights to 84 new destinations, and would mean lower fares and more choice for passengers, the airline said in a statement.

Cape Town Air Access met with Virgin Atlantic at the World Routes conference in Adelaide, Australia in September, but no firm commitment had been made, says project manager David King. In July at the SATSA conference near Durban, Wesgro announced it was in advanced talks with Virgin Atlantic to introduce flights to Cape Town. However, the association later corrected the statement, saying there were no formal talks between Cape Town Air Access and the airline.

On September 26, GM for AVIAREPS Southern Africa, Charmaine Thome, told Tourism Update, that losing the Thomas Cook Airlines flight between Gatwick and Cape Town would create a monopoly on the route, and prices would increase as a result. “Fares in peak season started at R10 800 (on Thomas Cook Airlines), comparing with the only other direct carrier, British Airways, whose fares we see sold at R15 500.” The increased fares and less capacity will mean that numbers from the UK will decrease, creating a larger impact across the tourism sector, Thome said.