Talking Onboard Product with Virgin Atlantic’s VP of Customer Experience (Across the Aisle)

As you might come to expect from an entity affiliated with Richard Branson, Virgin Atlantic celebrated the launch of its Los Angeles to Manchester flight with a party in a warehouse district east of downtown LA. And since it was close to Virgin Atlantic’s 35th anniversary date, Sir Richard himself came in to celebrate both occasions. Normally, I wouldn’t consider myself cool enough to attend this sort of soirée (or to use the term “soirée”), but when I was given some time with the airline’s VP of Customer Experience, Daniel Kerzner, I decided to brave LA traffic. I was really interested in delving more into the airline’s plans for its existing and future fleets. Over the thumping bass, Daniel and I sat down to talk.

Brett Snyder, Cranky Flier: I’ve seen the new A350 product, but I’m wondering if you can talk about it from the perspective of the current fleet and what you really saw as needing to change.

Daniel Kerzner, VP Customer Experience, Virgin Atlantic: I don’t know if the question is what needed to change. I just think over time — whether it’s design, physical product, attributes of the product — things move on. For us, the previous product has done very well. It’s a very consistent product across the fleet.

As an example, one of the things I wouldn’t say needed to change, but one of the things our customers told us they’d like to change is not having a flip-over bed in Upper Class. Having said that, the flip-over bed provides a much more comfortable sleep experience. What it doesn’t provide is a seamless sleep experience. And I think when we introduced it, we probably made the call as an airline — I wasn’t there at the time — we probably made the call to have a more comfortable sleep experience as the ultimate of what a customer would what. Actually some of the feedback from the customers is “we love the sleep experience but what we don’t like is not being able to gradually get up and get into bed.” So what our customers really demanded was a direct to bed experience. Ironically on our [A330-200] product, that is a direct to bed product, so we were able to use that as a bit of a test to see how our customers would react to that. That was seen as very favorable.

That’s an example of something that we thought it was time to change. So while we’re giving you a direct to bed, which is an industry standard, for us what was really important was that we protect the best sleep experience. As an example, in the flip-over seat we have on the rest of the fleet, we have a mattress topper on top of it, because you’re otherwise sleeping on a very firm back of the seat. With the direct to bed, very few airlines provide a mattress topper. For us, even on the A350 and the [A330-200], we still kept a mattress topper. For us it was about how do we evolve the bed sleep experience but still keep that layer?

Cranky: So far you’ve only announced this on the A350, but what are the plans for the rest of the fleet? The 787s, the A330s, and I imagine the plan for the A340s is to get rid of them?

Daniel: Yeah, the A340 has served us really well in particular with some of the challenges we had with the 787 over the last year. The way we tackled that problem was with the A340s [and] introducing the [A330-200s]. That’s enabled us to retain our flying program and give our customers the Virgin Atlantic experience. As you probably know, a lot of airlines made other choices which either sacrificed their flying program or sacrificed the experience they gave to their customers.

Cranky: What do you mean? Air Belgium is great. [Note: British Airways has contracted with Air Belgium to operate some flights for the 787.]

Daniel: Right, exactly.

Cranky: But for the planes that are sticking around for awhile…

Daniel: To your question specifically, we have our A350s coming in the next 2 1/2 years. We’re focusing the majority of our attention on bringing those aircraft in with a great Upper Class product. The social space is sensational. That’s another area where we thought it was time to change…

Cranky: I was going to ask about that too, but first this.

Daniel: It’s got a fantastic Premium, a fantastic economy, great inflight entertainment, the design of the cabin is phenomenal. When we look at future fleets, the best example I can give you is the [A330-900neos] which we announced this week. We have 14 of them confirmed. Some others are options. Those are coming in 2 1/2 years. We’re looking at the A350 product, and beyond the hard product of the seat. We’re looking at the design narrative, and we’re thinking 2 1/2 years from now what does that need to look like, feel like? What do we need to have?

As an example, one of the biggest changes we’ll see in the future in terms of business class or premium economy is not so much the physical seat but the technology you have as a customer, the experience you have onboard. I think airlines, whether it’s us or the industry overall, are getting to a threshold of having the most efficient customer-focused seat out there. There are a few types of seats that are dominating in the market. Where we’re really going to see a difference is in design, service, and then technology. When we think about the future fleet, how do we take what we’ve done on the A350, how do we future proof that for another 8 years beyond? The [A330-900neos] come in in 2 years, they’ll come in over a 2 year period and there’s an 8 year cycle after that. So we’re really betting on what’s going to be relevant in 10 years from now.

Cranky: But the [A330-200s] just came recently and the 787s too. Are you looking at those? Or are you saying “the product will be on the airplane for 8 years, and then we’ll deal with them”?

Daniel: For us, the 787s… typically aircraft are on a 16-year life cycle, so the logical time to do refurbishment is at the 8-year mark. We’re starting to think about “what does that look like on the 787s?”

Cranky: So there’s no plan to retrofit those aircraft with the A350 product?

Daniel: There’s a plan to think about what we’re going to do with the 787s from a product standpoint. We’re too early in the life cycle of — if you think of an 8- to 9-year life cycle and then you think of it as a 2-year planning phase to develop — we’re probably a year away from answering that question. So now our focus is on the A350, the [A330-900neo], and the 787s will be next.

Cranky: Ok, so the social space. It was a bar. Now it’s more of a lounge. It’s evolved. So what’s the idea?

Daniel: It’s funny. All of our social spaces are different today. Whether you’re on the 747, the A340, all of our spaces are different. The A350 is the next version of the social space. It has a small perch area where you can work on a laptop, stand up, and stretch. But one of the things we heard from our customers was “we want more seating, we want to have seatbelts so we can stay during turbulence, and we want to have more living space/social interaction.” We looked at the footprint of the A350… we have the perch area which is my favorite area. We also have some seating areas. We also have seatbelts which is really important. This was really the next iteration.

The big win we’ve had with the A350s is, well, the number of people who can sit in the space, but the wow factor when you walk onboard that aircraft is unlike flying any other aircraft in the world. Other aircraft, particularly some of the Middle East carriers have a social space, how we position it at door 2 was really about giving all customers whether in Upper, Premium, or economy that Virgin “wow” experience. It’s that handshake when you get on the aircraft and it’s that handshake when you get off.

Cranky: If you’re in economy, it’s “oh [waving wistfully], bye” and walk back…

Daniel: You know what? When you’re in economy, it’s “wow, I’m flying Virgin” when you come on and it might be “next time I want to fly in Upper Class” or “I want to aspire to have that experience,” because the Upper Class experience is unlike any business class our competitors fly. So when we think about, to your previous question, other fleets, future fleet. We look at the footprint of the aircraft. It’s important for us to have that social space at door 2. Again it’s that handshake when people come on. And it’s also an exclusive space for our Upper Class passengers. And so we’re constantly looking, based on the footprint, based on the seat product, how do we create a social space that gives back to our customers an experience… There’s not another airline that has created a social space in the way we have. That’ll continue in the future.. And whether you call it a bar, you call it a social space, it’s just a great space where we have a right to win as an airline in the way nobody does.

Cranky: So when you’re looking at your job now, obviously the [A330-900neo] seat, but what other things are you focused on? Maybe soft product, what are the areas you’re trying to innovate in?

Daniel: You talk about the seat. For us, a big area is design. We have an in-house design team. Our design lead came to us from Apple. We’re thinking very differently about the effort and the attention to detail that we put into the design of our product. Whether that is the seat, cabin, lavs… that is a very thorough and deep process that we go through. Food and beverage comes to mind. Whether it’s Donal Skehan who’s here tonight introducing a lot of the food product, Eric Lanlard who introduced the Mile High Tea — we’re serving 2 1/2 million of his Mile High Teas onboard this year — Change Please coffee which we just launched today, which is not just great coffee…. In Upper Class it’s state-of-the-art coffee machines to make specialty coffees onboard. It allows us to make an espresso, cappuccino, latte. It allows us to make an affogato, an espresso martini. So it’s about creating an experience onboard you could have on the ground. In food and beverage we don’t want to be an airline that serves airline food. We want to be an airline that serves great food. Donal, Eric, Change Please are all examples of how we’re doing that.

Entertainment and connectivity come to mind from a product standpoint. Finding that balance between giving our customers the best screen that we possibly can — we get asked a lot if the future is no screens, other airlines are taking screens off — for us it’s about giving you the biggest, best quality screen we can, the best entertainment that we can, connectivity between your personal device and the plane, and that’s where when we think about the future. What’s going to change your experience onboard is the technology that allows you to not only customize that experience, whether it’s Bluetooth, wireless charging in the future, being able to use your personal device to control the screen….

But another big shift that we’re working on in the future is if you look at pre-order. The likes of Singapore Airlines paved the way with “Book the Cook” several years ago. We’re thinking about he future where we’ll know in advance what amenity kit you want, what you want in your amenity kit, what type of sleepwear you want, what type of bedding you want, what type of food you want and when you want to eat that food. And what that allows us to do is not only give you an experience tailored to you, but it means we’ll be a lot more efficient in terms of what we load on the aircraft and what’s wasted as a result. So there’s a big impact on the environment, in the communities, and on sustainability. But from a customer standpoint, we’re giving you much more choice, much more flexibility. So from a product standpoint, it’s entertainment, it’s food and beverage, it’s design, and it’s the technology that will give you that personalization.

Daniel: I’m just gonna add one piece to that if I may.

Cranky: Sure, go ahead.

Daniel: We don’t look at airlines for inspiration in that space. We’ll look at… Donal, Eric, Change Please are good examples. None of them have worked with airlines before they worked with us. When we look at entertainment, when we look at pre-order, when we look at design, we’re looking outside the industry. We’re going to LA, to Dubai, to London, to New York. Looking at what hotels, retail, automotive, hospitality are doing to enhance their products. That’s where we’re going for inspiration. LA is a really good example. I love going to Gjusta and Gjelina in LA and that’s the type of place we’ll go to look around at what people are eating, what menus look like, the latest food trends and that’s what we try to then inject into our culture. And whether it’s Gjusta and Gjelina in LA or whether it’s some of the top hotels in the world or walking the streets of Soho in London or in New York or Hong Kong, that’s where we go to get inspiration.

You’re probably looking through the lens of an airline person. We look at it through the lens of our customers and how they live the rest of their lives. And how do we give you an experience onboard that is as good or better than what you’ll have in a hotel or in your personal life.

And with that, my airline-person lens and I headed home.

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5 Responses to Talking Onboard Product with Virgin Atlantic’s VP of Customer Experience (Across the Aisle)

  1. SirWired says:

    And, typically, an airline exec that forgets that most passengers fly in economy. I wish interviewers would press execs more on the plans for the economy product. I know most profits are made “up-front”, but those up-front seats don’t fly without the cashflow from the folks in the back.

    About all we got was: “When they see how nice it is up front, maybe they’ll pay for that next time!”

    • A says:

      On most wide body aircraft I’ve been on they board through the L2 door so you don’t even seen the “up front” product if you’re flying coach. How can I aspire to that if I’m not even seeing it??? Also, when the price delta between a coach seat and the business class is as much as 10x it’s not like people will just pony up next time around. It’s an echelon reserved for corporate fliers (who don’t foot the bill) or for the wealthy. The middle-class family taking a summer vacation are always going to be in cattle class and thereby I full agree the airline exec’s shouldn’t shrug off that very important cabin. It’s one space where I think Delta is doing a good job, adding things like pre-flight drinks for the coach customers on long haul int’l.

  2. Sean S. says:

    I appreciate his perspective on actually finding products and ideas outside of the airline industry. The airline industry’s idea of luxury and sophistication is stodgy and old and I am excited to hear that they are looking at customizing one’s experience on the planes. Increasingly less people are interested in a dining service that has caviar in it, or champagne, and people want a better beer selection than a can of Heineken in First Class. Why would I pony up thousands of dollars more for a service I wouldn’t pay for on the ground if it was served to me?

  3. Noah says:

    I know the conversation was about onboard product. But I am still curious why Virgin has such a diverse fleet. For a carrier of their size, why operate the 787, a330, a340, a350? Is it really worth the differentiation? (And yes I know the 340s are going away)

    • CF says:

      Noah – Well, yes, to start the A340 and 747s will go away. But I don’t understand the complexity either. You have old generation A330s that are still pretty new airplanes. Then they have the A330neos coming in. And they have the A350s. And of course, the 787s. Were I to make some guesses… I’d say the A330ceos will keep plying shorter routes from London and eventually get more coach-heavy for routes like Florida and things the 747 does today. Then the A330neos will also focus on those routes. The A350s will do longer hauls. And the 787s will do longer, thinner routes.
      I guess. I really can’t figure this out.

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