When people talk about Virgin Atlantic, the conversation is often shaped similarly to the David vs. Goliath story. You know, all starting back to one plane and a mildly wild man named Richard with a big dream of taking down the “big guys” and all that.
Despite significant growth, innovation and accomplishment, that’s kind of where the narrative stayed throughout the 36+ year history of Virgin Atlantic. A small airline vs lots of big scary “corporate” ones.
Until ever so recently, the “red” airline was still a boutique operation with major destination gaps, no major airline alliance adding value and an inconsistent product up front. If it wasn’t coastal United States, South Africa, India or the Caribbean you were after, there wasn’t all that much to pick and choose from either.
Other than affinity, there also wasn’t a definitive, non emotion led reason to pick Virgin Atlantic over other airlines, particularly for something like a major corporate account or for a busy flyer. Sure, you may “like them” but tangibly what was better at scale?
It was often the airline for once a year holiday makers for leisure destinations, and people who flew regularly between London, New York and Los Angeles who wanted an alternative to bland, or who’d simply been exposed to one too many British Airways IT failures. Harsh, sure, but kind of true? Definitely.
It’s All Changed For Virgin Atlantic
In under a year, Virgin Atlantic has dramatically transformed the narrative of this airline, whether anyone realizes it yet or not. From the Maldives to Dubai and Sao Paulo, new continents and destinations are everywhere; turning it into a bonafide global force.
Once cited drawbacks to flying the red airline have largely been nixed as a variety of on board, on ground and strategic partnership moves unfold into something bigger.
SkyTeam Is A Big Deal
Virgin Atlantic is also now a member of SkyTeam, adding regional partners basically everywhere, including Asia. Virgin Points can be used on airlines that can take people all over the world now, and points and status credits are earned when you fly on any of the SkyTeam member airlines.
In itself, this is a huge move, making it easier to lure frequent travelers who depend on network connectivity and the ability to earn and be recognized with elite perks globally, rather than just on one airline.
It’s nice to matter to any airline and Virgin was always good at making Gold customers, their “top tier” frequent fliers feel some love. But when you know that top tier fliers on other airlines feel the move across 13 or more airlines as a top tier customer, it didn’t feel like the same pursuit.
It does now, with SkyTeam airlines recognizing Virgin Atlantic status and awarding things like lounge access and priority benefits. Elite benefits now apply on airlines like Delta, Air France, KLM, China Airlines, Korean Air, Aeromexico, Garuda Indonesia, Vietnam Airlines and more.
The Products And Technology
And then there’s the products. The introduction of the Airbus A350 and particularly the new Airbus A330neo add “wow factor” to every Virgin cabin. This also gives Virgin one of the “greenest” fleets in the skies, so points there for sure.
Virgin Atlantic has always been a feel good factor and passenger favorite in economy and premium. People love the small touches which make the experience feel elevated along with friendly service customer but it’s a real force up front now too with high margin customers.
For the most part, those old “coffin” style seats are gone and the new private suites, with actual privacy doors on the Airbus A330neo are in. The airline is onboarding new planes with regularity now and each one despatched is setting benchmarks on most routes.
GSTP would happily argue with anyone who would rate another business class cabin over the Virgin Atlantic A330neo Upper Class experience on the direct routes it flies. In my falsely modest opinion, it’s the best business class seat flying New York – JFK, which is historically the only $1bn annual airline route.
For clarification, the seat/suite itself is great, but it’s really about Virgin Atlantic’s very forward thinking investment in technology, such as wireless bluetooth pairing for your headphones, lightning fast Viasat wifi and lighting. The onboard social space is just an extra nice touch.
Increasingly Robust Route Network
From 2024, Virgin will tick a few boxes that change the boutique airline or regional perception. Couple that with the expanded “one stop” reach offered by their SkyTeam partners and there aren’t many places you can’t get anymore with a Virgin ticket.
Virgin is launching its first route to South America with Sao Paulo, alongside more India and the Maldives. Connectivity into Europe is now excellent with options to fly KLM, Air France or Czech after a hop in London.
Connecting in the US is also immense thanks to recent route launches including Tampa and Austin. Delta doesn’t hurt either. Delta operates one of the most robust domestic networks from virtually all entry points Virgin flies to.
Asia Pacific is now also very much connected, with China Airlines and Korean Airlines offering one stop solutions to most destinations out of their home bases in Taipei and Seoul, respectively.
No Longer Boutique But Still Unique?
The Virgin Atlantic experience still very much feels boutique, at least to me. But when you factor an ever expanding fleet, route network and partnerships including Sky Team it’s quite difficult to really see Virgin Atlantic as a David in the Goliath story anymore.
The airline doesn’t do short haul like its Heathrow neighbors in British Airways and is unlikely ever to be quite so big, but growth and reach are increasing daily and things at the red airline certainly feel grown up.
In an impartial debate, there are just fewer and fewer things Virgin doesn’t have, and quite a few it does, that others don’t.