Virgin Atlantic, which has been one of the biggest operators of the A340-600 over the years is set to retire the type by years end.
There are currently 6 operational including the once retired and then brought back G-VNAP, which carries the ‘A Big Virgin Atlantic Thank You’ livery.
Virgin Atlantic was launch customer for the A340-600 back in 2002 and took delivery of 19 in total, one of the largest fleets of the type rivalled only by Lufthansa.
The odd thing about the fleet is that not at any time in their 17 years with the airline have all of them had the same livery. Even now they have three different schemes.
The aircraft were an odd choice, largely driven by Richard Branson’s personal feelings and a good relationship with Airbus from which the airline had purchased A343’s. The world was quickly moving towards twin engine aircraft with the 777 leading the way.
However the airline didn’t like doing the same thing as British Airways its arch rival, and famously used the strap line “Four for the long haul” to try and persuade passengers that it was the ideal long haul flyers choice.
The cost of running the A346 was higher than anyone expected. Slow to the point of lethargic on take off, they took twice as long as a 744 to reach 30,000ft. Notoriously, a fully loaded A346 requires most of Heathrow’s runway to reach V1 and they’re often seen almost grazing the signage of the London M25 orbital freeway that passes the airport as they seem to glide skyward.
However the aircraft had their fans – including me. They look amazing and are far more comfortable and noticeably quieter than a 744. They just don’t seem to be stressed at all, feeling like they’re well inside any performance parameters. The 744 always seemed like it was pushing itself to the limit.
The fuel burn on the type was high, but by the time they were being delivered Virgin were committed. By 2009 the recession hit and by 2011-12 the airline was in deep financial trouble.
One of the A346’s most successful routes was the London to Sydney operation via Hong Kong, closed in 2012. The airline was deeply upset by having to shutter the route but it wasn’t lack of passengers or even costs; it was the £/Au$ exchange rate that made it uneconomical.
Virgin Atlantic, (which was also originally going to be launch customer for the A380, but deferred its order for 10 years until cancelling in 2017), quickly realised its mistake and ordered first the 787-9, then added the A333 after the 787 was delayed.
As soon as they could the A346’s were retired as their ten year leases expired, with several being returned later or extended in service if cheap extensions could be negotiated, which with these aircraft isn’t difficult.
Sadly most of them lately are being broken up and I already have skin parts from two of them, however…
Some of the aircraft were stored at Lourdes with Airbus desperate to find a secondary market. In 2016 it even held a symposium in London trying to persuade airlines and leasing companies to take them on. Nobody did, at least not immediately.
When, in 2014-15 a buyer in Iraq (officially Al Nasser Airlines) took interest in the ex-Virgin Atlantic aircraft Airbus jumped at the chance to get rid of them. Bizarrely, I doubt I would ever have known about what transpired if I hadn’t been randomly looking at Iraqi Airspace, and who was still flying in it during the war against Daesh and their occupation of Mosul. I quickly spotted a retired, still UK registered A346 arriving in Baghdad.
Over the weeks three of them arrived, all legal and paid for. In March 2015, Iranian pilots smuggled in to Iraq, flew the aircraft out of Baghdad, having set the whole thing up to avoid sanctions, and on to Tehran. They still serve Mahan Air. In the meantime three more were sold to Al Nasser from another source and they too were flown out to Tehran, though after the sanctions were lifted following the deal over Iran’s nuclear ambitions.
Meanwhile Virgin Atlantic retires more and the last ones are now in their final season. The first four A350-1000’s will replace them, and by 2021 the last 744’s will have gone from Gatwick too.
The airline will have operated the A340 series for almost thirty years, but the age of four for the long haul is over. While the new aircraft are some of the best in the world, the departure of the A346 will take yet more variation and interest from the skies.