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Virgin Atlantic eyes capacity boost on Dubai flights

British airline looks at bigger planes or more flights for Gulf route, founder Richard Branson says

Ben Flanagan

Published: Updated:

The British airline Virgin Atlantic plans to increase capacity on its service to Dubai following the easing of UK visa restrictions for Gulf nationals, its founder says.

Sir Richard Branson, speaking today in Dubai, said the airline could fly bigger planes on the route, or even consider more flights to the region.

“Our daily service to Dubai does really well. And putting on a bigger plane at some stage will be definitely on the cards,” he said.

Virgin Atlantic, which is majority-owned by Sir Richard Branson's Virgin Group, currently operates one daily flight between Dubai International Airport and London Heathrow.

Branson welcomed the move to ease visa requirements, which he likened to “barriers” for citizens. Since January 1, the UK has allowed UAE, Qatar, Kuwait and Oman passport holders to travel to the country without a visa.

“The more people that travel, hopefully the more flights we’ll put on, and maybe bigger planes,” Branson said.

READ MORE: Space tourism lift-off ‘in months’, says Branson

Aviation analyst Saj Ahmad of StrategicAeroResearch.com, said Virgin Atlantic faces heavy competition from Dubai's Emirates and British Airways on the busy route between the Gulf emirate and London.

The other carriers have the option of using their Airbus A380 'superjumbos' on the route between Dubai and London, Ahmad said.

"Emirates alone has five A380 flights a day out of Heathrow - eventually BA will have to deploy its A380s to Dubai as well so as not to lose out on traffic," he said.

"It begs the question as to why Virgin hasn't boosted capacity," Ahmad added. "This is a classic case of actions speak louder than words. Instead of talking about it, why isn't Virgin Atlantic doing it?"

Branson was speaking to journalists at an event organized by UK Trade & Investment, having spoken earlier today at the UAE Government Summit in Dubai.

The billionaire British entrepreneur launched Virgin Atlantic in 1984, and the airline rapidly expanded from offering routes purely to the United States. It said last week it was dropping flights to Australia, saying its route between Hong Kong and Sydney is no longer financially viable.

Branson said the decision was due to “massive losses” on the route.

“I suspect that it carried on for too long, and that’s always a danger,” he said.

“The Australian dollar has weakened dramatically. We lost something like 10 million dollars last year and we’re facing similar losses this year… If the Australian dollar strengthened again, that would make a big difference. But for the foreseeable future, it’s unlikely [we will relaunch operations there].”

One of the more outlandish plans Branson has is to take his ‘space tourism’ Virgin Galactic model to commercial air travel – something that could see his business empire relaunch routes to Australia.

“Hopefully we’ll be back one day,” he said. “One day, we hope to be flying with Virgin Galactic to Australia. That’s the ultimate end-game for Virgin Galactic.”

Flying a Virgin Galactic spacecraft between London and Sydney would take about two and a half hours, according to media reports.

“Obviously if we could fly to Australia in a couple of hours, that would give us a massive advantage over anybody else. That would be a nice way of coming back again,” Branson said. “I would say that Virgin Galactic point-to-point travel would be about 12 years away.”

In an interview with senior Al Arabiya reporter Maya Jureidini, Branson said it may one day be possible to travel between Dubai and Australia in an hour on Virgin Galactic flights.

A total of “700 or 800 people” have so far bought tickets to travel into orbit on Virgin Galactic, he added.

Watch Al Arabiya's Interview with Sir Richard Branson