Travel

Richard Branson used a visit to Cape Town to announce the return of direct Virgin flights

Business Insider SA
Virgin founder Sir Richard Branson  is in Cape Town.
Virgin founder Sir Richard Branson is in Cape Town.
  • Richard Branson used a visit to Cape Town to announce the resumption of direct seasonal Virgin Atlantic flights between Cape Town and London.
  • The new flights will add over 80,000 seats between the two cities from November, but will only run until the end of the peak tourist season - for now.
  • The new seasonal route will, however, complement Virgin's Johannesburg flight, one of the group's most successful.
  • Western Cape Premier Alan Winde was also in attendance and said new direct flights into Cape Town had contributed billions to the local economy.
  • For more stories go to www.BusinessInsider.co.za

Virgin founder Sir Richard Branson used a visit to Cape Town to announce the resumption of Virgin Atlantic's seasonal direct flights to the city - after a seven-year hiatus.

Before the announcement, he drove the streets of Cape Town in an open-top bus waving a South African flag.

The flights, which will remain seasonal for now, launch in November and will add more than 80,000 seats to the route.

Branson, who has a long history with South Africa, expressed a deep love for Cape Town. He is primarily in the city to raise money for foundations linked to the late Desmond Tutu and host a meeting of The Elders. But he used the visit to officially announce the resumption of the route to a small gathering of politicians, business people, and the media.

"Who wouldn't want to come to Cape Town? It's the most special place in the world," Branson said. "The challenge for us now is to try and get it so we can come 12 months of the year."

The 71-year-old tycoon was in characteristically mischievous form. He took a swipe at South Africa's in-flight mask mandate, saying that together with China, it's one of the last remaining countries to require passengers and crew wear masks on board.

Masks were also a key issue raised by Liezl Gericke, Virgin Atlantic's head of Africa, the Middle East, and India.

"From an airline perspective, we always look after safety, and [we] make sure that nobody's exposed or at risk for any reason. But for anyone of you who've been concerned or worried about getting on a plane, I can tell you it's wonderful to see cabin crews' faces after having them behind masks for so long," Gericke said.

When asked why Virgin Atlantic had chosen to resume servicing the route that bypasses Gauteng, Branson quipped with a wry smile it may be "because Cape Town is supporting Ukraine".

In attendance were representatives of the local opposition-led government, which has been outspoken in its support for Ukraine in the war with Russia.

Gericke clarified that Cape Town, local government, and specifically its tourism, trade, and investment promotion agency Wesgro "have been doing a phenomenal job of driving awareness" around Cape Town. 

She said the decision to resume direct flights was due to the sustained growth in tourism in Cape Town and "a lot of work in terms of re-rationalising our fleet." 

"We now have one of the youngest fleets in the sky. The average age of our aircraft is only five and a half years, so we're flying very economical aircraft. Much more so than we did previously when we previously served the route. And Johannesburg is a good benchmark of how successful South Africa can be," Gericke said.

According to Gericke, passenger numbers on Virgin's London to Johannesburg route are back to pre-pandemic levels, and it's the second-best performing route on Virgin Atlantic's network.

Premier Alan Winde welcomed the development and said direct flights to the city had contributed R6 billion to the local economy.

"Our Air Access programme has brought 1.5 million extra seats into Cape Town, so I'm really glad to say now it's going to be 1.6 million," Winde said.

Despite the announcement Branson is, however, primarily in the country on various philanthropic ventures. 

On Saturday night, he hosted 50 business leaders at Mont Rochelle, his luxury hotel and vineyard in Franschhoek, to celebrate the life of Desmond Tutu and raise money for his foundation. 

And for the remainder of the week, he is hosting a meeting of The Elders, a group of independent leaders brought together by Branson to discuss global issues - which he was eager to highlight.

"There are horrendous conflicts going on around the world, and there are a lot of issues, from climate change right through to people using capital punishment in some countries, the futile war on drugs that goes on year after year that imprisons people unnecessarily instead of helping people who have drug problems. And so there's going to be another fascinating three or four days debating these various issues [at the meeting of The Elders]," Branson said.

The seasonal Virgin Atlantic service launches in November 2022 and will operate as a night flight departing Heathrow at 4:20 PM, arriving in Cape Town at 6 AM. The return route will depart at 8 AM, landing later that day at 5:45 PM. 

The Cape Town flights will be operated on Virgin Atlantic's Boeing 787-9 aircraft and offer customers Upper Class, Premium and Economy Light, Classic, and Delight cabins.

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