Virgin Atlantic Airways operates its first all-cargo flight

From the Virgin Atlantic blog. By Michael Oakes.

On the surface of it, flight VS698 looked like any other flight to New York. Parked at Terminal 3’s Gate 13, G-VSPY, one of our Boeing 787-9s, had an 11:25 departure scheduled on Saturday, March 21, 2020. The aircraft was connected to the gate by an airbridge, had a full load of fuel, a flight plan to take it across the Atlantic, and had passed all final safety checks. This flight was Virgin Atlantic’s first ever cargo-only charter. The flight was going to depart with two pilots, one cabin crew member, and a belly full of pharmaceutical and medical products.

The Covid-19 crisis has created unprecedented levels of disruption which have hit the airline industry particularly hard. Travel restrictions being introduced around the world now prevent the majority of passengers from flying as freely as they usually do. Thousands of flights have been cancelled and aircraft have been grounded, including here at Virgin Atlantic. We’re currently only able to operate a handful of flights until the situation improves.

The cargo is security screened and picked ready for the flight

Loading onto the lorry which will take it to the aircraft side

But out of crisis, innovation is born. Although the medical crisis has led to a temporary decrease in passengers wanting to fly, cargo demand remains strong. With so many airlines cancelling flights, there has also been a dramatic decrease in cargo space available. Airline capacity across the Atlantic is a fraction of what it was a few months ago, but global trade continues, and vital supply chains need to be maintained.

Loading the Boeing 787-900

The Virgin Atlantic Cargo team spotted the opportunity and rose to the challenge. Every year, Virgin Atlantic transports over 200,000 tonnes of cargo on its global network. If you’ve ever flown with us, chances are you were sitting above all sorts of goods and products being shipped around the world. We bring salmon from lochs in Scotland to plates in Los Angeles, pharmaceuticals from scientists in Tel Aviv to patients in Lagos, fruit from farms in South Africa to mouths in London – the list goes on.

Global trade depends on airlines like Virgin Atlantic to get things from A to B, and that hasn’t stopped, even during the crisis we now face.  Our Cargo team swung into action and found a way to help customers, new and old, keep their freight moving while at the same time keeping some of our beautiful aircraft in the skies.

Captain Steve Wrigley, Senior First Officer James Bennett and Dominic Kennedy, Managing Director, Cargo.

Flight VS698 on 21 March was our first ever cargo-only charter flight. Captain Steve Wrigley and First Officer James Bennett were joined by just one other person, Cabin Service Supervisor Katie Lang. No passengers were onboard, but in the hold was 11 pallets of cargo being sent to the US by a UK-based pharmaceutical company. The aircraft will turn around in JFK and fly back to the UK full of inbound cargo.

Strapped in and ready to go…

“I must say, standing out on the ramp at an eerily quiet Heathrow today really brought home to me the scale of what’s happening here – and added to my feeling of immense pride as I watched our inaugural cargo-only charter get airborne, knowing the aircraft would have otherwise been sat on the ground if not for the herculean effort by our cargo team in making this happen, especially at such short notice and in these challenging times”. – Dominic Kennedy

You may be wondering why we’re able to fly cargo but not passengers. That’s a good question. Many of the Covid-19 travel restrictions that have been introduced have special exemptions for pilots and cabin crew operating flights. One of the reasons for this is because of the critical nature of what they do – without them, aircraft wouldn’t fly and global air freight would grind to a halt. Because of this, we’re able to fly aircraft in and out of airports.

Dom chats to cabin services supervisor Katie Lang just before departure.

So, what happens on a flight with no passengers? This isn’t actually an unusual sight – training flights, positioning flights (when we need to get an aircraft from, say Gatwick to Manchester), and maintenance flights (when our aircraft get some TLC with engineers) happen regularly. However, we’ve never operated a flight like VS698 before. For our pilots, there are no major changes. They need to make a few technical adjustments for weight – an aircraft full of passengers is quite heavy. For our cabin crew, just because there are no passengers doesn’t mean they get to kick back in Upper Class and watch a film on Vera. Cabin crew are busy throughout the entire flight, taking care of things ranging from performing regular safety checks and liaising with the flight crew.

Our all cargo flight ready to push back on its way to New York

But as cargo charters are virgin territory for Virgin Atlantic, it still takes some getting used to. This flight was possible thanks to the efforts of many people at Virgin Atlantic, including our commercial, engineering, airports and operations teams. Before getting called for this flight, Katie was on standby, ready to help customers get back home on rescue flights. On VS698 she was looking forward to getting to know Miss Moneypenny and help our cargo customers maintain access to global markets.

Until we’re able to welcome you back onboard, we’ll continue to fly cargo to destinations around the world. The next time you look up from self-isolation and see one of our aircraft in the sky, why not guess what’s onboard?

Virgin Atlantic aircraft photo gallery: