It’s not quite the Berlin airlift, but Virgin Blue is trying to make the sky go dark over Broome with chartered flights from rival WA carrier Skywest to overcome its pilot blues.

Most of its scheduled flights to the pearl of the Kimberley for May were canned recently because of what it calls “a shortage of pilot hours”, what everyone else is calling, more bluntly, too few pilots.

But the news is seeping out only through unhappy Virgin Blue customers. The last thing Virgin Blue wants is to see a charter bidding war with Qantas for idle Skywest jets, something that could wreck the Broome boom in an instant with what passes for lunch money in QF management.

Broome and Virgin Blue make for pain at Qantas, since it is one of those regional centres where the upstart Virgins plan to deploy the flashy new Embraer jets that start arriving in August with the declared purposes of ending Qantas’s grip on the richer regional air travel market.
But the Virgins don’t have enough pilots, or pilot hours, to match their ambitions, making Broome part of the growing embarrassment of Virgin Blue cancelations all over the country. The airline this morning refused to discuss the issues, other than to point to the coincidence of continuing EBA negotiations with its pilots.

Virgin Blue staff have been told as little as 70 out of 45,000-50,000 customers per day in May (the quietest month for air travel in the year) will be affected by network schedule cuts of between one to two per cent. 
But it hasn’t responded to the obvious flaw in its arithmetic. Flights are packed on Qantas, Jetstar and Virgin Blue at the moment. And loosing one to two per cent of capacity doesn’t inconvenience 70 people a day, but somewhere between 450 and 1000. However, the options Virgin Blue is offering in its ringaround to those getting the runaround range from rebooking on rival airlines, or whole flights chartered on them, or your money back, or a flight credit to be used in the future.
While Virgin Atlantic is a very different airline to Virgin Blue, it is causing a welcome diversion in the west today by promising to start non-stop flights between London and Perth sometime after 2011, when it begins introducing a newly ordered fleet of Boeing 787 Dreamliners. Given that Qantas is already the world’s largest customer for the 787s, and more than keen on using them to bypass hubs like Singapore, or especially Dubai, Perth is set to be fought over by two long-rivals after years of complaining about being neglected by Qantas.

Unfortunately, the 787s can’t do Sydney or Melbourne non-stop to London, otherwise it would be outright war between Branson and Qantas, not forgetting that Virgin Atlantic is 49%-owned by that other Qantas ‘enemy’, Singapore Airlines. Send your tips to [email protected] or submit them anonymously here.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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