Why Does Virgin Keep Sending Its Worst Plane To Launch Routes?
Lately, Virgin Atlantic has mastered pulling out. For a brand built on sex appeal, it’s all too amusing to cover. Routes that are supposed to launch, get prematurely … what’s the word… and routes only just launched with much fanfare… get, is ejected the word?
These false start things happen to airlines on a one off basis, but with Sao Paulo and Austin getting nixed in such close proximity and wobbles around recent launches, it’s more of a trend than an one-off oops for the “Red” airline with so much hope and potential. With the Maldives, Dubai and more, there’s new skin in the game too.
If you ask me, there’s a fairly plausible reason for the premature pull outs and it’s one that there seems to be no immediate reprieve from for Virgin. Virgin keeps sending its worst plane to its hottest new destinations, and people just aren’t as naive as they used to be.
Why, when their A350’s and A330neo’s are so good and planes are being delivered, are routes getting launched with one of the worst planes in the Virgin fleet?
Virgin 787 “Dreamliner” Proving Not So Dreamy
The 787 Dreamliner has been nothing short of an unmitigated disaster for Virgin Atlantic and it’s continues to cost them real dollars and potential fans on a daily basis. That experience hasn’t necessarily been shared by other airlines and the plane itself is a phenomenal achievement.
I was on one of Virgin Atlantic’s recently when a passenger was so mortified by the Upper Class layout, they went on a full on tirade.
To start, these planes were delivered in 2014 with cabins barely updated in 13 years, so the person I encountered on that plane was indeed insane, but also not wrong.
Making matters historically even worse, Virgin’s engine choice on the 787, the Rolls Royce Trent 1000’s were the ones caught up in the TV newsworthy maintenance issues a few years ago which saw them pulled out of service more often than not, and at one point even at risk of losing their ability to fly transatlantic. That’s been resolved, albeit at great expense.
Virgin’s OG “Upper Class Suite” debuted in 2003 and is still visually identical to the 787 Dreamliner Upper Class Suite flying today with zero privacy and awkward seating. To receive a brand new plane 13 years on with no meaningful seat update, is a surprising choice.
The Virgin Crews can bring their inimitable charm, the food and drinks can be good and the ground experience can be among the best in the biz, but you’re still dressing up a bottom five onboard seating experience in today’s time with 787 Upper Class.
Here now on the cusp of 2024, these nearly ten year young planes seem to remain a source of constant frustration for Virgin, yet Despite this, they’re launching routes for the airline and acting as a flagship?
What’s important to note, is that unless there’s insane demand in the back, which there rarely is these days, routes are launched for corporate customers buying up bulk in the front of the plane.
The rest is gravy to play with. Important gravy, but a plane with a full cabin up front on corporate tickets is already a route success.
Which brings us to today, where virtually every route Virgin Atlantic has launched, has been launched with a Boeing 787-9 “Dreamliner”.
These planes feature a solid Virgin Atlantic economy experience, good premium economy, and in today’s landscape, an absolutely terrible Upper Class experience that’s almost old enough to drink in a U.S. bar, at 20 years old and counting.
Spare me the “first world problems” nonsense, because this is a commercial convo about the economics and factors of launching a route, particularly when a route gets ditched. Am I happier in any business class than economy? Yes, but that’s not the point here.
I can’t help but worry about the success of the new Maldives launch, the Dubai launch, the Bangalore launch or any other route launched with the 787-9, given the market we are in and the transparency new online sales tools offer.
I feel for Virgin in the sense that there aren’t other planes laying around to launch with. But at the same time, they’ve had almost exactly a decade to upgrade these planes to cabins which could compete head to head against the likes of Qatar, Emirates, Delta, United, BA or American. No updates.
At the time of Virgin’s Dreamliner launch in 2014 it was plenty competitive with BA still flying “dorm style” business class with 8 seats across, but airlines invested and caught up massively from 2017-2020 and continue to coming out of 2022.
Virgin aims to compete with BA — and BA has their newest seats on all US routes.
Economy Cabin Hasn’t Rebounded
Business class launches routes and certainly sustains them these days. Historically, economy was easy to fill and business was the challenge, but that’s been turned on its head post 2022 for competitive airlines.
Airlines are really struggling to sell economy right now as more people trade up and making matters worse for revenue, there’s more price sensitivity now, with long haul, low cost airlines doing their bit in the free market. Even if the cabin is well sold, margin is rarely the same. Premium is doing well but its the smallest cabin and often still not as high of a margin driving product as business class.
A Hard Corporate Sell
Virgin Atlantic admitted as such in cancelling Austin, citing a lack of the anticipated business demand from potential tech customers as a key driver for the pull out. People have Google now, and they can see comparisons between cabins quite quickly.
One can only wonder whether this was the case for the second quashed Sao Paulo launch.
In Austin, Virgin had hoped to siphon off business from British Airways and others operating the route, but In that apples to apples comparison, Virgin launched with the “coffin” style 787 Upper Class directly against British Airways “new” Club Suites.
One option features privacy doors, large responsive touch screens, an excellent table for work and dining, with a top 5 business class seating setup. The other, a coffin style seat, a tiny pixelated screen and a setup which you’re either sleeping in, or upright.
Thankfully for Tampa, which appears to still be a Virgin route, the flight was launched with the A330neo, which I’d argue is one of the best business class experiences in the world. That’s an easy product to win new business with, particularly when you’ve got the direct flight.
I can’t think of a corporate travel manager in their right mind who would sign off on a contract placing their employees deemed valuable enough for business class in the old 787 Upper Class seats versus an A350 Club Suite. The contract savings would have to be massive. The A330neo Upper Class vs the Club Suite, that’s a no discount needed situation and one with stellar traveler feedback.
It’s hard to see how the Austin route ever stood a real chance of gaining corporate traction. That’s where my fear is for other Virgin launches, or scrapped launches will always be, as long as the 787 is the chosen aircraft. I can only applaud the sales teams sent in that achieved anything in those battles.
I love airline competition. Free markets have always made the flying experience better, from pricing to cabins. With that enterprising mindset, I just can’t understand how this clever airline continues to shoot itself in the foot, and stunt its own growth.
Even if I were to have an affinity for the Virgin brand, the customer support and the loyalty program, I wouldn’t put my own travelers in the 787 when far superior seating exists on competitors.
For the sake of passengers, prices and cabins all around the world, I really hope Virgin stops flying its 787 on new routes so that it can gain more market traction. Or maybe, give the aging Upper Class cabin the snip. It can’t come prematurely enough.