Virgin gets a Heathrow makeover

The red and white balloons were out in force at Virgin Atlantic’s check-in zone at London Heathrow Terminal 3. The reason for the extra decoration was that the day before Virgin’s senior management team were celebrating the airline’s return to Chicago.

Virgin axed the route just after the September 2001 terror attacks. It is also planning a return to Toronto.

Although Virgin’s dedicated check-in area is still under refurbishment at T3, giving it a slightly scrappy the “builders are in” look, the ability to control a sizeable area of real estate like it does at Heathrow shows why the airline is sticking firmly to this terminal when the big move takes place. That move starts at the end of March when British Airways takes possession of the shiny new Terminal 5.Before that happens Virgin’s new-look T3 area will be finished. The airport’s chief executive Tony Douglas describes the redevelopment of T3 as “Heathrow’s best kept secret”.

Work is well advanced and the project “will largely be finished by the end of 2007″, says Douglas. Much of the effort has gone into giving Virgin something to crow about. “There is a special element for the Virgin product,” says Douglas. More details will come later of what Virgin plans, but it will open up the departures area. “It will be very distinctively Virginized,” says Douglas.

And the amount BAA is spending on T3 is remarkable. “We will invest from now to 2012 just short of £1 billion on the redevelopment of T3,” explains Douglas.

But this could just be the start of the story for Virgin. For much as it may be reluctant to vacate its patch at T3 – which includes the fantastic Virgin Clubhouse (see related blog tomorrow) – BAA believes its proposed Heathrow East terminal could prove even more alluring.

Douglas says that Virgin and Star Alliance carriers would be interested in moving to East. A major reason for this is that their plans to develop dedicated facilities would be unconstrained.

The plan is for the first phase of Heathrow East to open in June 2012, in time for the London Olympics.

That is a big if of course. The UK’s tortuous planning process is a major hurdle to overcome first.

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