Virgin Atlantic has announced it is to cut more than 3,000 jobs in the UK and end its operation at Gatwick airport.
The shock announcement comes after rival British Airways said it could not rule out closing its Gatwick operation. Pilots’ union Balpa described it as “devastating”.
Many airlines have been struggling as the coronavirus pandemic has brought global travel to a virtual standstill.
The airline currently employs a total of about 10,000 people.
Virgin Atlantic, which is in the process of applying for emergency loans from the government, said that jobs will be lost across the board.
“We have weathered many storms since our first flight 36 years ago but none has been as devastating as Covid-19 and the associated loss of life and livelihood for so many,” said Virgin Atlantic chief executive Shai Weiss.
Balpa the union said: “This is another terrible blow for the industry and is evidence of the dire situation facing UK aviation.
Balpa general secretary, Brian Strutton, said: “Our members and all staff in Virgin Atlantic will be shocked by the scale of this bombshell. We will be challenging Virgin very hard to justify this.”
Virgin Atlantic also said it will move its flying programme from Gatwick to Heathrow. It said it intended to keep its slots at Gatwick “so it can return in line with customer demand”.
However, Mr Weiss said there was no certainty when the air travel industry would recover from the coronavirus crisis.
“After 9/11 and the global financial crisis, we took similar painful measures but fortunately many members of our team were back flying with us within a couple of years.
“Depending on how long the pandemic lasts and the period of time our planes are grounded for, hopefully the same will happen this time.”
Gatwick said the company was “very saddened” to hear of Virgin Atlantic’s plans.
The airline has flown from the airport since 1984, and Gatwick said: “Virgin Atlantic will always be welcome at Gatwick and we will continue our efforts to explore ways to restart the airline’s operations as soon as possible, in the knowledge that they intend to retain their slot portfolio at Gatwick for when demand returns.”
Tim Alderslade, chief executive of aviation industry group Airlines UK, said: “The challenges facing UK aviation cannot be overstated. There is currently close to zero passenger demand and many airlines have ceased operations altogether.
“We do not know when countries will start to reopen their borders, or whether restrictions will remain in place for some time.
“Airlines are having to adapt to a sector that will be smaller and leaner in future, with no guarantees as to when we will return to pre-crisis levels.”