I recently posted about Aer Lingus and its short usage of the 767-300 but it wasn't alone in the British Isles in utilising the type during the 1990s for a short period. As with Aer Lingus the arrival of a 767 at Virgin Atlantic was directly related to a specific route but in this case, unlike the Irish example, Virgin got exactly what it needed at the right time. The 767-300 was never intended as a test but served exclusively as a stopgap. Even so, it got the full livery treatment and is once again an interesting what-if version.
By the early 1990s Virgin Atlantic was really beginning to find its feet having grown its fleet to 8 747-100/200s and, in 1991, gained access to Heathrow. It was also by this time investigating new equipment and had been evaluating the Boeing 747-400, McDonnell Douglas MD-11 and Airbus A340. Ultimately only the Douglas Trijet would miss out and both the 747 and A340 would be ordered.
The A340-300 order was placed in April 1993 for four aircraft to the tune of $450 million. The first aircraft, G-VBUS, arrived in November and was named 'Lady in Red' by none other than Princess Diana herself. The A340s were designed to supplement the larger Jumbos on thinner routes. G-VBUS for example began her service flying between London Gatwick and Boston.
It appears that Virgin never looked seriously at the substantially smaller Boeing 767-300ER. While the A340-300 was seating between 250 and 300 passengers in a 3 class layout the 767 would only seat around 210.
One of the routes well suited to the A340 was Manchester-Orlando, which had begun in May 1996 by the appropriately registered G-VSUN. However, Virgin's plans were upset by the unexpected opportunity they were given when they gained permission to serve Johannesburg from London Gatwick. The problem was they didn't have an aircraft available to fly that route.
The solution found was to lease the Martinair 767-31AER PH-MCG starting on September 23rd. The aircraft had been delivered to Martinair new in September 1989. Although the aircraft would be fully painted in Virgin colours, albeit with a natural metal belly, it was crewed by Martinair cockpit and cabin staff. Interestingly in Virgin service it kept its Dutch name of 'Prins Johan Friso'. The aircraft duly arrived and was put into service on the Orlando route freeing up the A340 to start the Jo'burg route on October 2nd. Initially the African destination was served thrice weekly but that increased to six times weekly from March 1997.
This arrangement persisted until March 1997 when the delivery of new 747-400s free'd up aircraft to resume the Orlando route under full Virgin control. Interestingly the route would once again be operated by an external partner this time from May 2002 until April 2005. During this period Air Atlanta flew ex-Virgin 747-200s on the service wet leased back to Virgin but using Air Atlanta's technical crews and AOC.
PH-MCG would be returned to Martinair but remained in the Virgin scheme for a while following the lease and so was seen at various European holiday destinations, as well as Amsterdam, in Virgin colours even though not operating for them. It remained in Martinair service until being stored in July 2009 and broken up the following year, after twenty years of service.
April 1993. COMPANY NEWS; AIRBUS WINS ORDER FOR FOUR PLANES FROM VIRGIN. New York Times
August 1996. World Airline Fleets News Issue 107
November 1996. World Airline Fleets News Issue 110
Looking back at our first Airbus. Virginatlantic.com
I'm Richard Stretton: a fan of classic airliners and airlines who enjoys exploring their history through my collection of die-cast airliners. If you enjoy the site please donate whatever you can to help keep it running: