Australian travelers know Virgin Blue as the number two competitor to Qantas, but within a couple of days, the name will be gone. Ok, so I’m just being dramatic. The airline is simply changing its name to Virgin Australia (or so it’s expected). That, of course, begs the question . . . why didn’t it get that name in the first place?
We don’t know for sure that Virgin Australia will be the name announced this Wednesday (Tuesday for us here in the US), but all signs point that way. Trademarks have been registered, the web domain has been secured, and there were even a couple of slip ups on the current website that showed the airline’s hand. This is all part of Virgin Blue’s new strategy under former Qantas exec John Borghetti to become a viable competitor against Qantas when it comes to the business traveler.
How did the airline get the name Virgin Blue in the first place? It all came as part of a contest the airline held to name the airline when it launched in 2000. In Australia, a “Bluey” is apparently slang for a red-headed person. With its red-bodied airplanes, the name seemed to fit, and it added a little fun. This may have sounded fun, but it seems out of place today among Virgin airlines.
Most Virgin airlines (except for the now-defunct Virgin Express) have geography in the title. Virgin Atlantic flies over the Atlantic (primarily). Virgin America? I think we know how that works. And Virgin Nigeria may be gone, but in its day, it was clear where it flew. So now Virgin Australia will join that family.
The bigger problem, however, is around the Virgin name itself. The name was originally licensed solely for flights within Australia. That meant that when Virgin Blue started expanding, it couldn’t take the Virgin name with it. That’s how we ended up with Pacific Blue in New Zealand and the South Pacific, Polynesian Blue in Samoa, and of course, V Australia for long-haul intercontinental flights. The brand confusion is just nuts.
My understanding is that this insanity was courtesy of Singapore Airlines. Singapore bought 49 percent of Virgin Atlantic back in 1999. Concerned about protecting its turf in its sphere of influence, it pushed for the restrictions on Virgin Blue’s use of the Virgin name outside of Australia. We’re in a different world today, however. There is plenty of low cost carrier competition around Southeast Asia and Singapore is pondering a sale of its Virgin Atlantic stake anyway.
I assume that Virgin Australia had to pay up in order to be able to use the Virgin name in a greater geography, but it’s worth it to have a unified brand. Now we’ll see all the Virgin Blue brands united under the name Virgin Australia. It’s now my understanding that only Virgin Blue will become Virgin Australia with Pacific Blue being folded in to V Australia. So, man, did I get this one wrong. With this new brand, the airline will be gunning for Qantas and a larger share of the business travel market. The name and paint job aren’t the only things changing. We’ve already seen the airline put widebodies on flights between Sydney and Perth with longer-haul configurations that appeal to business travelers. We’re also going to see new interiors and changes to the frequent flier program, undoubtedly in ways to make it more attractive to the frequent Qantas traveler.
Remember, Virgin Blue also has a fairly new partnership with Air New Zealand across the Tasman, so I would assume we’ll see further integration between the two so that the new Virgin Australia can provide better offerings to the business travelers on both sides of the Ditch.
If I’m Qantas, I’m certainly concerned about this. The Virgin effort is being spearheaded by someone who knows Qantas well from the inside. And while its Jetstar subsidiary did a good job of holding ground against low cost carriers, it does nothing against an airline targeting the business traveler. This should be fun to watch.
[Updated 5/2 @ 812a to reflect the fact that only Virgin Blue will be changing its name to Virgin Australia]
[Updated on 5/4 @ 918a - it appears that Pacific Blue and V Australia will become Virgin Australia, so the initial post was right.]