This year marks a new chapter in Virgin Atlantic’s 35-year history – one that recently minted CEO Shai Weiss says will bring profit back to the airline. Weiss will be speaking at APEX EXPO in September.
There’s a lot riding on the word “velocity” for Virgin Atlantic and its CEO, Shai Weiss, who took over the top job at the British carrier from predecessor Craig Kreeger in January. It’s a word that for him signals movement with direction, and that direction is growth. It’s also how Virgin Atlantic has branded its new three-year strategic plan, which launched at the same time Weiss began his chief executive duties. “Velocity is really harnessing the things that we have around us or assembled around us to create Virgin Atlantic for the future,” Weiss says.
A lot has happened to bring the long-haul carrier to this point. There’s the five-year-old joint venture with Delta Air Lines, which has a 49-percent stake in Virgin Atlantic. More recently, the European Commission approved the acquisition of flybe by Connect Airways, a consortium including Virgin Atlantic, that will help feed the airline’s hubs at Heathrow, Gatwick and Manchester airports while also allowing it to expand into the short-haul European market. There are the new routes to places like Mumbai, Tel Aviv and São Paulo. And there’s the partnership with Air France-KLM that will transform Virgin Atlantic from a point-to-point carrier into one that helps passengers connect to more destinations than ever before through its network.
Weiss also points to the addition of 12 Airbus A350-1000s to its fleet – the plane is more fuel-efficient and produces 30 percent less emissions than Virgin Atlantic’s Boeing 747 contingent – as one more decision that will help the company achieve a return to profitability by 2021. (The company posted losses in both 2017 and 2018.) In June, the airline also announced an order for 14 Airbus A330-900neos, with options for six more.
And then there’s the Heathrow question and Virgin Atlantic’s desire to emerge as Britain’s second flag carrier. A third runway is slated to be completed at the international airport by 2026, and Virgin Atlantic is lobbying for a larger share of the slots than what might be allotted to it under the current system. “Once this third runway is built at Heathrow, it’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to create more competition that will benefit everyone. However, it is currently constrained by a slot-allocation regime that will benefit the incumbent. We believe that needs to change, and that change will create a thriving second flag carrier,” says Weiss.
All this change, this movement with direction, he believes will help Virgin Atlantic attain another of its recent goals: to be the most loved travel company in the United Kingdom. “You cannot be the most loved if you don’t take care of customers, if you don’t show up with the best planes, are not on time and don’t provide the best customer service. Love is what fuels our engine,” he says.
LEADING WITH KNOWLEDGE
Though new to the role of CEO, Weiss isn’t new to Virgin Atlantic or to the Virgin brand. He joined the airline in 2014 as chief financial officer and was appointed chief commercial officer in 2017. Before that, he held various roles within the Virgin family: He was a partner at the Virgin Green Fund, which invested in renewable energy, and he helped steer the rebrand of broadband, cable and telephone provider NTL Telewest into what is now Virgin Media, as the company’s managing director. This experience, he says, will serve him well as Virgin Atlantic brings flybe into the Virgin ecosystem.
“It starts with the people who work there. When you give them license to work under the Virgin umbrella, they really go to new heights.”
“I know how exciting a rebrand is for the employees and how customers see it. And I’m bringing that knowledge of what we can do with a company and how to bring the Virgin magic to it. It starts with the people who work there. When you give them license to work under the Virgin umbrella, they really go to new heights,” he adds.
As CFO and CCO, Weiss’ concerns were more contained. Now, as CEO, his focus is on the entire company. The magnitude of that responsibility is what he’s found surprising in the months since starting at the helm of the airline. “I’m in charge of the well-being, safety and security of 5.5 million passengers and 10,000 employees day in and day out; it’s not that I’m not ready for the responsibility, but the broadness of that responsibility is big.”
Still, he wouldn’t have it any other way. “As a leader, the intellectual interest in running an airline is second to none. We are recipients of all the external factors that we do not control, and still have so much in our control.”
To that end, Weiss says the company religiously measures its net promoter score by flight and by direction, which means if a passenger reports being unsatisfied on an outbound journey, Virgin can capture that and seed it to the crew on the inbound flight. “It might be something that you think is not meaningful. Maybe you didn’t like the way we greeted you. Shouldn’t we then go out of our way to be nice to you, to rectify that? The opportunities are endless,” he posits.
Improved connectivity between the ground and the plane, data collection and insights will help Virgin Atlantic in its quest to keep customers happy, Weiss says. Connectivity has always been important to the airline – it was the first European carrier to boast fleetwide Wi-Fi, and it is putting Bluetooth on its A350s. But the increased ability to troubleshoot with the ground when there’s an issue with a connecting flight, for instance, means it’ll be better able to redirect customers when necessary.
When it comes to the future of in-flight entertainment, unsurprisingly Weiss is on board with the idea of a seamless experience from lounge to cabin, from smartphone to seatback screen. “How cool would it be that you start watching a film on your device in the clubhouse, and when you’re on the plane, you’re connected to the same system? You would have curated your content with us and through us,” he says.
LIVING UP TO REPUTATION
As the company grows and changes, most significantly with the acquisition of flybe, it isn’t cutting back on service. While a 55-minute flight (the average duration of a flybe trip) won’t offer lie-flat beds and a three-course meal, it will offer the safety, security, reliability and on-time performance passengers have come to expect from the Virgin Atlantic brand, Weiss says: “There’s no growing into that expectation; it is immediate, as it should be.”
He also emphasizes that the airline’s expanded joint venture with Delta and new tie-up with Air France-KLM will mean perks, such as reciprocal earn-and-burn loyalty programs and elite status for clients. “Bottom line, there’s a tremendous amount of synergies from this type of cooperation,” he adds.
There are detractors who might view Delta’s stake in the company, as well as this more recent deal with Air France-KLM, as a sign that Virgin Atlantic is not long for this world. But Weiss discounts those claims. “The people who bought into Virgin Atlantic bought it not to rebrand it into something else or to consume it. They bought it for the excellent company that we are, and the company that we keep.”
Virgin Atlantic CEO Shai Weiss will be speaking at APEX EXPO. Visit expo.apex.aero for more info.
This article was originally published in the 9.4 September/October issue of APEX Experience magazine.