Virgin Blue Group and Skywest Airlines have signed a 10 year strategic alliance which will see VB make its long awaited entry into turboprop operating regional aviation markets.
Skywest will operate up to 18 new Virgin Blue branded turboprop aircraft as part of the agreement, which will see both airlines codeshare on a number of their domestic sectors throughout Australia. A Virgin Blue spokeswoman was unable to confirm which aircraft type would be used on Skywest routes, but said an announcement would be made in the coming months and that the aircraft would be “the latest technology aircraft to suit these regional routes.” It is expected the ATR 42/72 and Bombardier Dash 8 Q300/Q400 are under consideration, with industry rumours suggesting the Q400 is favoured.
The first Virgin Blue branded turboprops are due to arrive in mid 2011, with an additional three more to be operational by the end of the year.
Virgin Blue Group of Airlines CEO and managing director John Borghetti hailed the agreement as a “win-win” for both airlines that benefited regional Australia. “The combined strength of our networks, along with the additional capacity we will deliver with new aircraft, will provide travellers with more frequent flights, better schedules and competitive fares,” he said in a statement. “The partnership will see Virgin Blue expand its reach throughout regional Australia and will allow us to access untapped opportunities in regional Australian markets, in particular the booming fly-in fly-out resource sector market.”
Skywest also plans to operate the same aircraft type in its own right on WA coastal routes. The airline was recently selected as the preferred tenderer for the WA state government’s five year exclusive licence to operate coastal regional routes in Western Australia out of Perth.
The partnership between Virgin Blue and Skywest mirrors that of Qantas and Cobham, with the latter operating Qantaslink branded Boeing 717s in regional routes in WA and northern Australia. “It will be a wet lease operation,” a Virgin Blue spokesman told Australian Aviation. “Virgin Blue will lease the aircraft and Virgin Blue and Skywest will jointly operate them on the routes.”
Skywest chairman Jeff Chatfield highlighted opportunities for corporate travel growth in both the resource sector and charter operations, domestically and abroad. Chatfield is also chairman of Singapore based lessor Avation PLC from which the aircraft will be leased.
Virgin Blue says the announcement completes the third phase of its network review program, which has also seen it rationalise and withdraw from some Australia routes, quit the New Zealand domestic market, and enter into alliance agreements with international carriers Etihad and Delta.