Delta, Virgin Atlantic Codeshare: What It Means for Flyers

To nobody's surprise, this week, Delta and Virgin Atlantic announced an extensive program of codesharing. This is a logical first step toward a full-court joint venture, given Delta's recent purchase of a 49 percent interest in the British airline. A true joint venture requires further governmental reviews, including antitrust immunity, but the codesharing can start almost immediately—specifically, on July 3 of this year.

Although the initial announcement covers more than 100 routes, the crux of the deal is simple: Delta can put its flight numbers on Virgin's six daily round-trips from New York to London/Heathrow. London-New York is by far the most important transatlantic airline route, and those critical "high yield" business travelers want to use Heathrow as their London airport, not remote Gatwick or Stansted.

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Heathrow is strictly slot-limited, so the only way Delta can gain additional Heathrow access is by buying slots from other airlines—which nobody is selling—or by making a deal with an airline with a lot of its own slots. That's where Virgin comes in.

The codeshare will also apply to Virgin Atlantic's other Heathrow routes from Boston, Chicago, Los Angeles, Miami, San Francisco, Washington, D.C., and Vancouver, as well as its Gatwick and Manchester flights from Las Vegas and Orlando, and Glasgow flights from Orlando. The deal will include the usual reciprocal benefits: frequent flyer, lounge club, etc.

Overall, both airlines' business- and economy-class products mesh rather well. Both offer lie-flat seats in business class and the usual minimal product in economy class. But they use different approaches to premium economy: Virgin Atlantic offers a true premium economy, with extra-wide seats at 38-inch pitch. Delta uses semi-premium economy, with 34– to 35-inch seat pitch but the same narrow seats as in regular economy. Presumably, these will be excluded from codeshares.

Given that American and European governments have already granted antitrust deals to Delta with Air France/KLM and American with British Airways, everyone in the industry would be surprised if Delta's bid with Virgin Atlantic got nixed. So you can expect some further integration between the two airlines maybe late this year or early next year.

But almost immediately, if you're headed for London, you'll be able to fly Delta to Heathrow from eight North American cities.

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