Why would you fly with a troubled airline like Virgin Atlantic? Having begun their operations in 1984, today the airline deals with around 5.5m passengers each year, and while 2013’s numbers showed a tiny increase from 2012, the fact is Virgin Atlantic is not growing like some other European airlines – despite having some prestigious routes and treasured landing slots at London Heathrow Airport. In recent years, Virgin have been operating at a 79% load level, which is not bad, but it’s clearly nowhere near as good as it could be with the kind of routes it flies.
I have flown with Virgin Atlantic many times across the Atlantic, mainly to Orlando on family holidays when I was younger. These were journeys on the B747 leisure fleet, departing from London Gatwick. The planes were pretty old and run down, but the kind of passengers Virgin Atlantic wants are the working class families on their “holidays of a lifetime” to the likes of Miami, San Francisco, and Vegas. These passengers do not have the experience of flying regularly, so they are easier to please, and they do not know the difference between Virgin Atlantic and the leading airlines of Europe, the Middle-East, and Asia.
I also find Virgin Atlantic to be a penny-pinching airline; in my experience they will offer you one drink and then not do a drinks run again in the entire flight. Some of these flights, such as the flight to Sydney via Hong Kong on the A340 can take around 18 hours (including a stopover). In comparison to leading airlines where multiple drinks are performed, this is pretty shabby service from Virgin.
The main thing Virgin Atlantic has going for it is its brand image (spearheaded by Richard Branson, chairman of the Virgin Group). Virgin Atlantic has a great brand admittedly (with its “virgin” cabin crew), and perhaps if you want to stand out in the world, then you do need a good brand image. However, is that really what airlines should be all about?
Standing out from the crowd with risqué marketing techniques is something you would expect from a fast food franchise or a music label promoting somebody’s new album. But is there a place in the market in the year 2014 for such an image in the aviation industry? I think not.
Clearly some people like something a little different. Take the Virgin Atlantic first and business class lounges. These lounges are for premium customers, who are paying a hefty fare to travel in a bit of luxury. Of course these passengers know what they are getting when they book a ticket with Virgin Atlantic, so it’s not as if they are being hoodwinked, but these lounges in which they will roam before their flights are a far cry from the dark décor and professional ambience of lounges around the globe from the likes of Etihad, Qatar Airways, Singapore Airlines, or All Nippon Airways. It almost looks like the lobby of a W Hotel. Still expensive, and you could say borderline chic, but what works in the world of hotels may not work in the aviation industry, and I think that most of Virgin’s Clubhouses, including the ones at New York-JFK and London Heathrow, look somewhat tacky.
I think Virgin’s fleet of aircraft is pretty bland at the moment. They have 10 A330s, 13 A340s, and 12 747s, which mainly are based at Gatwick for routes to the Caribbean and Florida. Virgin Atlantic have also made orders for 16 B787 Dreamliners, which should come into service by the end of 2014. This is a shrewd order, and one that can potentially see the airline improve its load factors on existing routes, as well as open up future routes to destinations not served yet by them, such as Beijing, Rio, Bangkok, and possibly even Phuket. What annoys the most with Virgin Atlantic is their constant dilly-dallying over the order for the Airbus A380 “Super Jumbo”. Originally, these A380s (of which Virgin have ordered a measly 6) would come into service by 2009, but Richard Branson has kept delaying and delaying, and the belief is that probably the A380 will never see the red and white colours of Virgin Atlantic. It is debatable where they could fly them successfully anyway; possibly to their Pacific-West US operations, such as San Francisco, Los Angeles, and Seattle, but I personally think that even though they are due to finally arrive in 2018, Virgin can’t afford to operate them anymore. They will probably hold out until they can convince Airbus to exchange the orders for other aircraft if and when necessary.
With a 49% stake sold to Delta Airlines, Virgin Atlantic need to focus on swapping routes with their US partners and possibly even join Delta in the SkyTeam alliance. Virgin Atlantic also announced in September 2014 they will go ahead with the cancellation of their routes from London Heathrow to Tokyo-Narita, Cape Town, Mumbai, and Vancouver. I am highly surprised that the Tokyo route will be discontinuing, as this used to be very profitable for the airline, as well as being their first ever Asian route. Nowadays, Virgin have just Shanghai and Hong Kong as Asian destinations. Consolidating the rest of their network and thinking about softening their brand image to fit in with the modern aviation industry is a must for the future for Virgin. At the moment, they are scaring off as many customers as they can win!
I have included Virgin Atlantic in my own personal thoughts on the worst 5 airlines in the world.