Doubling up

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Virgin Atlantic is betting big on South Africa, adding a second daily service into Johannesburg and reaffirming its commitment to a market its been serving for over 21 years. The airline’s head of its Middle East & Africa region, Liezl Gericke, was, unsurprisingly, happy to host editor Dylan Rogers for a coffee in Johannesburg, to expand on this announcement and other Virgin Atlantic news.

Virgin Atlantic has seen the gap. As South African Airways continues to attempt to turn itself around, a by-product of the national carrier’s turnaround strategy has been the shedding of some routes and frequencies that it deems unprofitable and unsustainable.

One of those is SAA’s second daily Johannesburg-London service, with April seeing the airline give up one of its two slots into the UK capital.

Virgin Atlantic didn’t blink. Buoyed by the sustained success of its existing daily service and a host of ongoing corporate deals that keep the front of its Boeing 787 Dreamliner aircraft just about bursting at the seams, it grabbed that now available slot.

“On the one daily flight at the moment, it’s buoyant, and it’s very difficult to find an upper class or premium economy seat,” says Gericke. “We are very fortunate in that this aircraft is one of the best performing in the network – we never dip below 90% load factors.”

No surprise, then, that this is one of the first Virgin Atlantic routes to get a second daily service.

“It is so significant for Virgin Atlantic,” says Gericke. “There isn’t a single other country in the world that we serve – with the exception of the US (New York and LA) – that has more than one frequency going into it. We’ll be adding 188,000 seats a year to the route.”

They’ve been quite busy at Virgin Atlantic, because news of the second Johannesburg service was followed almost simultaneously by the airline’s first significant economy class development news in the past 10 years.

As part of its £300-million investment in customer experience, Virgin Atlantic has unveiled what it calls “three new ways to fly economy”, with the launch of its ‘economy delight’, ‘economy classic’ and ‘economy light’ products.

“The need was identified because we have a lot of competition, mainly in Europe, on low-cost long-haul,” says Gericke. “Lots of airlines are unbundling their products – baggage, pre-seating etc – but what Virgin decided to do is to not just try and compete with low-cost long-haul, but to add something new that no other airline had. As a result, we’ve reconfigured every single one of our aircraft with extra legroom seats in economy, and that’s the differentiator.”

So, ‘economy delight’ offers a seat with 34-inch legroom, priority check-in and boarding, and advanced seat assignment; ‘economy classic’ offers free seat assignment – providing extra reassurance for families and groups that they can sit together – and ‘economy light’ offers Virgin Atlantic’s lowest fare, although every economy seat comes with the same meal and drinks service.

“If you look at the low-cost long-haul operators, there’s no meal service, baggage and pre-seating – you have to pay for all of that,” says Gericke. “If you add all of that up, you’re probably not going to get too far off what a normal long-haul ticket would be. But people choose to travel like that, because they’d rather save the money. It is a way to compete on cost, but at the same time introduce something unique and different.”

In another minor Virgin Atlantic cabin development, the airline has decided to drop the word ‘economy’ from its premium economy class, meaning it will be known as just ‘premium’.

Continuing the theme of good news out of the airline, Gericke is quite bullish about the change in fortune experienced by Virgin Atlantic’s Nigerian operation in Lagos, which, for the past few years has been plagued by fund repatriation issues.

“We’ve now had six very good months, with very good load factors,” she says. “Nigeria is a buoyant market and if we could add more capacity, we would. We can’t, though, because the bilateral air services agreement for British airlines is at its capacity.”

So, what to do?

Well, upsize the aircraft, of course, with Gericke confirming that of the group of new Airbus 350-1000s ordered by Virgin Atlantic, one of them has been earmarked for Nigeria.

As has already been said – Virgin Atlantic are betting big, but betting big on not just South Africa, but Africa as a whole.