Goodbye to G-VFAB & Little Red: A Sad day but a good day for Virgin Atlantic

Gemini Jets G-VFAB
Gemini Jets G-VFAB

747-4Q8 G-VFAB “Lady Penelope”, named after the Thunderbirds puppet ‘star’ who in turn was modelled on Sylvia Anderson, the creators wife and who provided the voice, was flown to Phoenix Goodyear (GYR) as scrap today. Aero Turbine Inc will dismantle her. Her registration, G-VFAB was taken from Lady Penelope’s 6 wheeled Rolls Royce, famously driven by her manservant Parker, FAB-1.

The registration was very Virgin Atlantic of the period, slightly misogynistic. The idea that Thunderbirds referred to both the glamorous female cabin crew, (in the 1960’s and 70’s the term ‘birds’ was a British male generalisation for girlfriends/attractive women), and the power of the aircraft, whose engine noise was considerable.

I took this from the Virgin Atlantic Club House Garden on 27th June while waiting for a flight to San Francisco
I took this from the Virgin Atlantic Club House Garden on the roof of Heathrow Terminal 3 on 27th June while waiting for a flight to San Francisco. We flew on 744 G-VBIG and back on G-VROC.

Delivered to the airline on 28th April 1994 through ILFC (hence the Q8 customer code) from whom Virgin Atlantic leased her, she spent most of her life operating out of Heathrow, usually on the LAX/SFO/JFK/MIA/LAS routes.  There were a few excursions from Gatwick and Manchester over the years. She was one of the Heathrow Five, who when refurbished from 2010 had the premium Economy seating downstairs, with a mix of Upper and Economy on the top deck that never really worked for the Upper Class passengers. The Gatwick based aircraft had Premium Economy upstairs.

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She operated in all but the latest 2010 livery having been expensively repainted into the amazing Birthday Girl 25th anniversary livery in 2009, which she wore until the end. It was probably one of the most dramatic liveries ever continuously worn by a British registered aircraft.

It’s the beginning of the end of the Heathrow Five, now only G-VWOW, HOT, BIG & ROC are left and every one of them will be gone by February 11th when the last one comes back from Miami.

In later years she spent time going back and forth to Xiamen where Virgin Atlantic contracted it’s 744 major maintenance cycles to HAECO.

Last flight of a legend on her way to scrap
Last flight of a legend on her way to scrap, Las Vegas to clear customs as waste metal, then to Phoenix Goodyear for dismantling

It’s the end of an era when such an iconic airliner, that must have moved by any rough estimate, at least 4.6 million passengers in her life time and travelled around 70 million miles, is retired. She’d have made a great museum piece in the UK, especially at Duxford which has the space to have housed her.

G-VFAB with the Red Arrows in 2009
G-VFAB with the Red Arrows in 2009

Little Red

One of the most controversial and frankly stupid things Virgin Atlantic ever did was launch Little Red. The only people in the airline industry who thought it would actually work with just 4 aircraft on wet lease from Aer Lingus were Virgin Atlantic’s deluded management. Of course everyone wanted it to work, and it was a good service, I used it for day trip to Edinburgh in July 2013 after it’s March launch and it and the aircraft were excellent. It was pretty cool that both the models EI-DEO and EI-EZV were the models made by AC & JCW and used on our flights.

The rationale was that with the demise of BMI and it’s absorption by British Airways, 35% of Virgin’s long haul transfer customers would be cut off from the airline unless they flew BA from key points EDI, ABZ and MAN, which meant they may as well fly all-inclusive BA through Terminal 5. Why bother switching to the awkward to get to Terminal 3?

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BA was obliged to hand over the slots by the EU/UK CAA. All domestic and unable to be used for any other purpose – so Virgin took up the challenge. There were never enough flights at the right times to make a real dent in BA’s monopoly and while some flights were quite busy – fares were as low as £10 one way with £45 in taxes and airport fees slapped on top, average utilisation was never more than 47% in July 2014 but was normally around 35%. Woeful tales of aircraft with 10 or fewer passengers were rife.

Things were made worse by poor schedule availability at Manchester and the slots at Heathrow used for it were borrowed from another airline who wanted to sell them. Virgin Trains (high speed) were also competing directly in Manchester with Little Red, with the advantage of arriving in the centre of London. The new CEO Craig Kreeger must have been horrified at inheriting this mammoth waste of money in the middle of a huge financial down point for the airline that the project only exacerbated. It didn’t take long for sense too prevail. Once it became clear Manchester would have to go in March 2015, the project was doomed and it was allowed to quietly slip away. Nobody will much notice it’s departure.

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The main annoyance is that it really was a good idea, well executed in terms of service offering. There just wasn’t the critical mass, marketing money, slots and clout to make it work. The mysterious passengers so vital to long haul still turned up – but not on Little Red. In the end just 5% were transfer passengers.

Originally it operated out of Terminal 1 – it was the last flight I ever took from the now closed terminal. They transferred not to Virgin’s T3 but to the new T2TQT where Aer Lingus operate from, and there is a specialist domestic passenger facility. To give you an idea, this was a 930-am flight, so few people were on it, that when we turned up to check in the staff at the desk were, and I do not joke, not really awake. They actually seemed surprised to see us!

The last outbound flight was LHR-ABZ  VS3025 operated by EI-EZV arriving at 2145hrs on 26th September 2015. It flew over me but it was too dark by then to photo, so this is the last inbound I was able to see as it flew over my house at nearly 22Kft. We’ve had clear blue skies for days now, so I was very lucky. It’s not much of an image, but it’s the last one I’ll ever take, and that makes me a little sad.

The last ever shot of A320-214 EI-EZV as Little Red as VS3024 ABZ-LHR in daylight on their last day of operations 26/09/2015
The last ever shot of A320-214 EI-EZV as Little Red as VS3024 ABZ-LHR in daylight on their last day of operations 26/09/2015

There were no return flights from Edinburgh and Aberdeen. EI-EZV was flown Aberdeen-Dublin, EI-EZW from Edinburgh to Shannon and EI-DEI  from Heathrow to Shannon. The will be stripped and repainted for either their next wet lease customer or returned to Aer Lingus/IAG Group service.

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So you might say why is this a good day for Virgin Atlantic? Well firstly it marks the end of a service that has done nothing but suck it dry of profit – Little Red was a financial big red. Great as it was it remains a business disaster, a vanity project typical of many of Branson’s actions as evidenced in his interestingly unchallenged unauthorised biography, Branson: Behind The Mask by Tony Anderson. G-VFAB, another example of the airlines bravado, sails into the sunset. Sad from a historical, livery, aviation point of view, but another chapter in a great airlines history. It’s going has been made possible by the latest technology, as the 787-9’s come on stream and a marked change of attitude starts to permeate through the business. One that I’m sure will lead to better things as we reach the second half of the second decade of the 21st Century. It’s a great airline that lost it’s way and is finally moving forward again.

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6 thoughts on “Goodbye to G-VFAB & Little Red: A Sad day but a good day for Virgin Atlantic

  1. Hi Jon. To begin with I absolutely love your blog and I check it out every day. In regards to VFAB, I was at Gatwick on Saturday morning and saw her being pushed back and then taxiing at the far end of the airport. When I checked my flight app a while later, she was already at 36,000ft over south Wales and I wondered where she was off to because I didn’t see her come near the terminals to load passengers. Googling the flight number left me bemused. But thanks to your news, I’m now fully updated, but sad that it was such a low key departure. I flew on her in 2010 and the on-board shop model was one of the first I bought for my collection. Keep up the good work. All the best, James

    1. Hi James

      Thank you so much for your kind words. It’s nice to be appreciated! It was very sad to see G-VFAB go – did you get any photos? I have to say I wasn’t even aware of it until a friend who is Virgin cabin crew tweeted a goobye message. Most of the usual sources were taken aback at the speed of her departure and it had been kept quite quiet. Other than trolleys and consumables they left her as was and she departed the day after being withdrawn. What with that and the end of LR it was a sad but good day.

    2. Sadly, no photos as I was in a lounge at the North Terminal and my iPhone would never have been able to get a decent shot from so far away. I never saw her take off either, as I assumed she was about to taxi to a gate to load-up and my concentration was elsewhere! I never flew on LR, but if I’m correct it was just Aer Lingus with different colours for crew and aircraft!? I have DEO as part of my collection, along with other previous short lived Virgin short haul aircraft.

  2. The interiors of Little Red were completely Virginised, purple seats, rather nice ones at that, mood lighting, the works. If it hadn’t got the words ‘operated on behalf of’ by the door you’d never have known!

    1. Sounds very nice. I’ll have to check out some “nostalgic” photos online later. A little off topic but I’ve just had the displeasure of flying on BA’s 777 VIIP and it was the most unpleasant interior (in regards to comfort, engine noise/vibration and IFE) and I wasn’t expecting it to be so bad. I’m actually dreading the flight back!

    2. G-VIIP is quite elderly (1999) and she’s been on the list of technical issues more than average. Back in July she spent at week on the ground at Gatwick for one of those issues that just wouldn’t fix!

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