Branson’s Virgin Atlantic Weighs Adding Stretched Dreamliner

May 06, 2014 10:27 pm ET

(Updates with Delta’s stake in last paragraph.)

May 7 (Bloomberg) -- Virgin Atlantic Airways Ltd., poised to receive its first Boeing Co. Dreamliner, is considering whether to add the stretched 787-10 version of the world’s first composite jet.

“It would make a lot of sense for us to have some -10s,” Chairman Richard Branson, 63, said in an interview yesterday in Dallas. “We are definitely exploring that.”

Acquiring the largest 787 model would let Virgin Atlantic fly more passengers on the long-haul routes for which the Dreamliner was designed. Crawley, England-based Virgin Atlantic has 16 firm orders for the 787-9, the mid-sized offering in the three-jet Dreamliner family, with options for five more.

Virgin Atlantic would be more likely to place new orders for the 787-10 versus converting some of its -9 orders to the bigger plane, said Branson, the U.K. billionaire and founder of Virgin Group Ltd. The 787-9 seats 280 people, while the -10 will hold 323 passengers, according to Boeing’s website.

The airline will get its initial 787 in September. Dreamliners will boost Virgin Atlantic’s fuel efficiency and let the carrier sustain its image for flashy customer service. Virgin is known for touches such as motorcycle pickups for passengers and an array of onboard entertainment options.

‘Look Stunning’

“We’ve got completely new seats, completely new entertainment systems, completely new bars, a completely new lighting system,” Branson said, declining to provide specifics. “It’s going to look stunning and will give Virgin Atlantic a real shot in the arm.”

Virgin Atlantic has 38 Boeing and Airbus Group NV wide-body planes in its main fleet, along with four leased single-aisle Airbus jets for its Little Red operation in the U.K.

Boeing began offering the 787-10 last year, with deliveries targeted to begin in 2018. The twin-engine jet is a longer version of the 787-9, which is in turn a stretched variant of the first Dreamliner, the -8. Boeing’s list price for the 787-10 is $288.7 million, though airlines usually get discounts.

Branson was in Dallas to help rally support for his partly owned U.S. airline, Virgin America Inc., as that carrier seeks to sublease two gates from American Airlines Group Inc. at the city’s Love Field airport. He owns a stake in Burlingame, California-based Virgin America, which last month reported its first annual profit.

Delta Air Lines Inc. agreed in December 2012 to buy a 49 percent stake in Virgin Atlantic. The carriers won antitrust clearance for joint trans-Atlantic operations last year, giving Virgin access to a network across North America, including more than 40 cities beyond New York.

--With assistance from Kari Lundgren in London.