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.

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.

Robyn Daneel-Spicer, director of Sure Stellenbosch Travel, says she would be elated if a second carrier were to service the London – Cape Town route directly. “My clients complain all the time about British Airways’ product on this route, saying the planes are old, the screens are small and of poor quality, and the chairs are uncomfortable,” she says.

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 Southern Africa Tourism Services Association (Satsa) conference in 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.

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.