Q&A: Virgin Atlantic – Sticking around

Virgin Atlantic Airways is a daily visitor to Johannesburg and looks sets to remain a staple supplier of air travel to and from Africa. Liezl Gericke, Virgin Atlantic’s Head of Middle East, Africa and India, took some time to update Business Traveller Africa on the airline's latest news.

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Q: What’s the Virgin Atlantic goal for the remainder of 2019?

A: This year we’ve launched a new three-year business plan called Velocity with a simple aim to become ‘the most loved travel company’. Our priorities are: making Virgin Atlantic redder than ever – offering an unrivalled service in the air and on the ground, and securing the long-term future of Virgin Atlantic – by enabling our people to be themselves at all times, playing an active role in our communities, securing a strong balance sheet, ensuring everyone has the ability to travel, offering more choice for our customers, working with the best airlines to extend our network reach, enhancing our regional connectivity, and being part of a new Virgin Group loyalty scheme that provides more ways for our customers to earn and burn miles – this is particularly important for our business customers.

Q: What’s your view on IATA’s New Distribution Capability (NDC)?

A: Virgin Atlantic was the first airline to achieve Level 3 Certification on the IATA NDC, standard 18.1. Through NDC, agents and customers alike are able to access consistent schedules, price points and availability, regardless of the booking channel. Additional capabilities such as seat allocation will be progressively rolled out throughout the year.

Q: What does the Air France-KLM stake acquisition in Virgin Atlantic mean for the airline?

A: Virgin Atlantic, Delta and Air France–KLM are set to form an expanded joint venture later in 2019. We’ll be the founding members of a $13bn transatlantic partnership – offering over 300 daily transatlantic flights, 108 non-stop routes, and over 340 destinations. We have now achieved EU merger clearance enabling Air France-KLM to take a 31% stake in our business.

Q: Have you made any recent changes to your onboard product?

A: We put customers at the heart, and are investing to provide an unrivalled experience. Virgin Atlantic now partners with master patisserie Eric Lanlard to offer ‘mile high’ afternoon tea on flights, and TV personality Donal Skehan to offer a range of delicious meals across Upper Class and our Clubhouses.

Q: How have your Johannesburg and Lagos routes performed over the past year?

A: Virgin Atlantic has been proud to serve South Africa for over 22 years. Johannesburg is one of the most popular destinations on our network and we were delighted to add a second daily service from October 2018. The new flight added an additional 188,000 seats between Johannesburg and London Heathrow. We recently celebrated our 18th anniversary of serving Lagos and continue to see strong demand for travel from Lagos to London on our services, and remain committed to the long-term future serving these two important cities.

Q: Any new African routes in the pipeline?

A: We are always evaluating new destinations for our customers, but we don’t have any immediate plans for expansion in Africa.

Q: How is Virgin Atlantic using technology to enhance the passenger experience?

A: The average age of the Virgin Atlantic fleet is only six years, which gives the airline the latest technology and features. Virgin Atlantic was the first European airline to roll out wi-fi across the fleet. Every single seat offers a personal USB charging point, and every route offers access to high speed wi-fi.

Q: What do you believe business travellers are looking for in an airline?

A: Corporate passengers prefer direct flights, airlines which offer excellent customer service and that have a strong loyalty proposition. These are strengths of Virgin Atlantic, evidenced in the strong market share we hold in South Africa and Nigeria.

Q: Have you picked up on any global airline trends that you feel are worth noting?

A: More airlines are introducing ‘no baggage’ fares to compete with low-cost carriers and last year Virgin Atlantic made its biggest change to its economy cabin in over a decade – introducing ‘three new ways to fly’ to offer our customers more of what they want. Travel habits are changing and one size doesn’t fit all, and customers can now choose from ‘economy delight’, ‘economy classic’ or ‘economy light’ – tailoring their booking but never compromising on food, drink, entertainment or award-winning service.

Q: What’s your view on the push towards an African ‘open skies’ environment?

A: Africa remains under-served by the aviation industry and every open air service agreement has encouraged traffic, improved economies and created jobs. To make the air travel industry profitable, African countries need to liberalise air traffic. As far back as 1999, 44 countries agreed in Yamoussoukro, Côte d’Ivoire (the Yamoussoukro Decision) to deregulate air services and promote the opening of regional air markets to transnational competition. Since then, however, implementation has been slow and inconsistent. But even if the African skies were suddenly opened, challenges will have to be addressed, such as poor infrastructure and high costs of operation.