A few weeks back, I wrote about both the benefits and pitfalls of Virgin Atlantic joining the SkyTeam alliance. A large part of the benefits side is the ability for Virgin to create new partnerships with other members of said alliance.
My analysis stemmed primarily on Virgin Atlantic utilising Hong Kong as their primary hub within Asia to connect onto Asian SkyTeam carriers – at least until Shanghai Pudong on the Chinese mainland reopened. I argued that while Hong Kong is not a hub for any SkyTeam carrier, its geographical location in Asia is well suited to connect onto regional SkyTeam airlines such as Korean Air, Vietnam Airlines and Garuda Indonesia.
That was completely wrong.
Just a few days after publishing, Virgin Atlantic announced the ‘indefinite suspension’ of flights to Hong Kong. As noted by Head for Points, Virgin has just purchased twenty-four slots from SkyTeam and Transatlantic Joint Venture partner, KLM. While I feel that some of these slots will go towards more US destinations, HfP also noted that Seoul Incheon could be a potential destination.
South Korea’s largest news agency, Yonhap (Korean language), stated in a news article that “Virgin Atlantic is likely to operate the London – Incheon route after the merger of Korean Air and Asiana Airlines”. The report states that Korean Air have proposed Virgin Atlantic as an alternative to Asiana Airlines to increase competition between the UK and South Korea. It seems unlikely the Korean Air would make a statement like this without some confirmation from Virgin Atlantic.
Launching a route to South Korea could have some benefits for Virgin Atlantic, namely connectivity to a vast network of routes across Asia. Both Korean Air and Virgin share a common owner in the form of Delta who have an equity stake of 11% and 49% respectively as well as joint ventures across the Pacific and Atlantic. Out of any of the carriers in SkyTeam outside those Virgin Atlantic cooperates with already, Korean Air seems like an option.
However, as much as this makes sense hypothetically – the real world situation might make this impractical. Currently, only South Korean airlines operate direct, non-stop flights between London and Seoul with British Airways pulling out earlier in the pandemic. Despite British Airways increasing destinations in the US, Seoul as well as other non-core Asian destinations are unlikely to be restored any time soon due to lighter loads.
The other issue with Seoul is geography. It is not great for connections from Europe to Southeast Asia and Australasia which are important destinations for a lot of the global super connecting airlines. Even prior to the closure of Russian airspace, routings to Seoul take around 12 hours. Unless your destination is South Korea or Japan, Seoul is not a desirable connecting location from the UK to major cities such as Bangkok, Hong Kong, Sydney and Singapore due to the amount of back tracking required. Flight connections in the Middle East or Southeast Asia are going to be far more efficient for passengers and the airlines.
I struggle to see how Virgin Atlantic will be able to succeed on this route without meaningful cooperation with the combined Korean/Asiana airline whether that is in the form of a deep codeshare agreement or joint venture. Cooperation with the combined Korean Air will be a necessity to ensure that Virgin Atlantic has any chance of the route succeeding with onward traffic. This would seem contrary to the statement by Korean Air’s CEO stating that Virgin Atlantic would provide added competition, when working together would be a necessity for success.
While I genuinely hope that Virgin Atlantic can get more non-US routes off the ground, however it feels like the airline may be picking the wrong place to start. Hong Kong, still, provides a better connecting location or, even better, Singapore with both having extensive connectivity with Virgin’s SkyTeam and non-alliance partners. It certainly would be nice if the low redemption rates stayed around from the Hong Kong era…one can hope.