Virgin Express was established by Richard Branson’s Virgin Group in 1996 and sought to become a dominating force in the European low-cost market. However, less than a decade later, the Virgin Group pursued a sale in 2004.
By 2006, the airline completed a merger with SN Brussels Airlines, Belgium’s national airline at the time, to form the nation’s current flag carrier Brussels Airlines. So what exactly happened to Virgin Express?
The Virgin Express founding story
Virgin Express was founded on 23rd April 1996 after the Virgin Group purchased Belgian airline EuroBelgian Airlines (EBA). The airline’s fleet consisted of Boeing 737-300 and 737-400 planes inherited from EBA, which were then rebranded in the recognizable red of Virgin. At the height of its growth, Virgin Express had 26 aircraft but would eventually downsize to just 10 planes by 2004.
The carrier was headquartered at Brussels Airport and flew to various European destinations, primarily holiday spots around the Mediterranean. After focusing heavily on the low-cost market, Virgin Express soon became a serious competitor to Belgian national airline Sabena. Ironically, Sabena would later go on to declare bankruptcy and reform as SN Brussels Airlines, which went on to merge with Virgin Express in 2006.
Sale of assets to Belgian airline
By 2001, the Belgian aviation industry was in major trouble, before a global decline in air travel after the 9/11 attacks in the U.S made things even worse. Sabena, Belgium’s national airline since 1923, went into liquidation in November 2001, leaving the country without a flag carrier. However, by February 2002, SN Brussels Airlines took over the remains of Sabena and served around 90 destinations from 2002-2006.
The Virgin Group decided to sell Virgin Express assets to SN Brussels Airlines in 2004. As part of the agreement, both airlines would be under a single holding company but continue to operate as separate brands. Virgin Express covered the low-cost market, while SN Brussels Airlines provided full-service flights. The two airlines also co-ordinated their routes in order to avoid competition with one another.
Merger to become Brussels Airlines
After a few years operating as separate carriers, SN Brussels Airlines and Virgin Express eventually merged into a single airline – Brussels Airlines. By March 2007, Brussels Airlines was up and running and now offers flights to over 120 destinations. Once the merger was completed, Virgin Express’s 10 Boeing 737 aircraft were handed over to Brussels Airlines, which now boasts a fleet of 50 planes.
Within just 18 months of starting operations, the Lufthansa Group acquired a 45% stake in Brussels Airlines. Presently, Brussels Airlines is owned by holding company SN Airholding SA/NV, itself wholly owned by the Lufthansa Group. The airline, like most around the world, has been hit hard by the coronavirus crisis. After a $333m rescue deal in July, the carrier posted major losses of $215m for the first half of 2020. After 12 weeks of grounding its aircraft in March, the airline has attempted to restart operations since May but is nowhere near its pre-COVID capacity.
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