Executive Traveller exclusive
Virgin Australia’s alliance with United Airlines is set to begin in April this year, with the Star Alliance member replacing Delta Air Lines as Virgin’s partner for flights to the USA and South America.
For its part, United Airlines will not only allow Virgin’s frequent flyers to earn Velocity points and status credits on UA flights but also offer status-based perks such as access to United Club lounges plus priority check-in, security clearance and boarding.
United also intends to open up Velocity point redemptions on its flights and swing its upgraded Boeing 787-9 Dreamliners – sporting the airline’s latest Polaris business class suites plus its new premium economy seating – onto routes between Australia and the USA.
Executive Traveller spoke with Patrick Quayle, United’s senior vice president of international network and alliances, about the airline’s plans.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
On the creation of the Virgin-United partnership
“We are the longest-serving US carrier in Australia, and the largest US carrier flying to Australia, so it just made sense for us to have an Australian partner.
We both started talking to each other a couple months back, and it just goes to show how quickly this moved. Normally these partnerships take a lot longer to be able to cement, but this was really done in a couple of months.”
Rebuilding United’s Australian network
“Throughout this whole hellacious (Covid-19) experience, there's been a United flight every single day from San Francisco to Sydney. We did not stop that, and I take that as a point of pride that goes to show our commitment to the country, quite honestly.
We now have the two Sydney flights, LA/Sydney and San Fran/Sydney, running.
What I'm looking for now is a little bit further liberalisation of the market, in terms of more people being able to enter the country, and ultimately we need to be able to carry non-Australian passport holders down there, whether it's tourism or whether it's business.
I would say Melbourne (to Los Angeles and San Francisco) is next on the docket, followed by getting Houston/Sydney flights back up later this year.
I’m kind of targeting our summertime, Southern hemisphere winter, for bringing those Melbourne flights back but there are certain trigger points to hit so that you can commercially justify that, so I need the Australian government to loosen things and liberalise things, before we can commit to more.”
The ‘triple gateway’ appeal of Los Angeles, San Francisco and Houston
“From Australia to anywhere in North America, Los Angeles is the largest destination, the largest terminating point in the United States, and if you want to connect from there we also serve approximately 36-37 domestic cities from Los Angeles.
In San Francisco, the local market is a lot smaller, but the size of the hub is a lot larger, we have roughly 65 domestic cities that we serve out of San Francisco.
Then if you look at Houston, (as a destination in itself) the local market is a lot lot smaller, but we have 105 domestic destinations out of Houston, so that’s very vast and broad connectivity.
And that’s just the domestic US. Then you add on all the Mexican cities, where we serve 24 different cities in Mexico – and you add on our services to Central American and South America – and you can see how it's very, very broad.
And that all gives Virgin customers much more travel via one stop to virtually anywhere in North or South America because of United's vast network, they’re not having to double- connect or even triple-connect. It’s a real win for Virgin.”
Could United begin flying to Brisbane?
“We're always looking at new opportunities and I think you've already seen us grow the region tremendously… I am someone who likes to grow and likes to experiment. We're always open to looking at that.
Having Virgin as a partner is going to be helpful and that will create more opportunities for more service. That's point one.
Point two, I need the market to open up for all passengers, not just Australian passengers and not just students going to Australian universities.
And point three, we need to see how everything shakes out with Covid and demand.
The only thing we had as normalcy was 2019 as a baseline, bur two years have effectively gone by now (and) I really want to bring back the cities that we already had service to, before we add a new service.
Once things kind of shake out and stabilise, I think we'll be able to better make a judgement on what we can do in terms of broadening our service.”
Bringing Polaris business class to Australia
“Our stated goal is that by June 2022 the (upgrade of the) Boeing 787-9 fleet will be done, they will have the Polaris business class product and also Premium Plus, our premium economy product.
Even during the pandemic about half the aeroplanes going to Australia had the new interiors, the new configurations, and it'll be a hundred percent this (Northern) summer, we guarantee it.”
Using Velocity Points to book a United flight
“Our aim for that would be that it’s effective immediately when the partnership starts in April.
There is IT work that has to be done between now and then, our team and the Virgin team are both working on the IT platforms and the ability to talk to each other and do all that, but April is 100% our goal.”