United talks points, perks, Polaris business class for Virgin flyers

Look for Velocity Points redemption on Polaris business class once the United-Virgin alliance kicks off in April.

By David Flynn, January 6 2022
United talks points, perks, Polaris business class for Virgin flyers
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.”

Qantas - Qantas Frequent Flyer

04 Nov 2017

Total posts 315

“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."

I'd say with the quote, combined with the Omicron concerns and lingering border issues, this doesn't give UA much confidence.   It's unlikely UA will be expanding to BNE in the short term until October 2023 at the earliest.  

Unless the Queensland Government steps in with a Tourism and Aviation Support funding package for UA to enter sooner or later, which is possible but would be dependent on borders and how they handle the Omicron outbreak locally.

I'd say VA returning to BNE-AKL with daily 737s to connect to restored UA services to LAX/SFO from AKL (later in 2022) will be more likely in the short term. 

BNE and Queensland customers would help UA with loads ex-AKL when international travel resumes ex-NZ later in 2022.

Virgin Australia - Velocity Rewards

04 Aug 2017

Total posts 11

Not looking forward to the BNE-SYD shuffle to get to the US again, however if it's going to be sweetened by decent recognition of status then I guess us VA status holders are going to have to suck it up. Will be interesting to see whether there is any progression back towards a VA/NZ tie up for NZ-US legs...

QF

11 Jul 2014

Total posts 728

Nice, I wonder what the points rate will be like and if we can book business 355 days out from  our flight dates.

QF

03 Jul 2015

Total posts 17

"“We are the longest-serving US carrier in Australia, and the largest US carrier flying to Australia, "

Hardly the largest?  What about AA?

01 Aug 2019

Total posts 15

I think what he means is that AA only had 1 flight a day to Syd and UA has roughly 3-4 flights a day from Melb and Syd 

United Airlines - Mileage Plus

12 Sep 2011

Total posts 271

Good to hear!!! My United  -and they've extended PointsPlus and status (1K here) till jan 2023.  Polaris finally to Australia! Great to hear, since Ive been able to fly Polaris since 2018 transcon (intially JFK, then EWR) SFO, ocassionally LAX

Lets hope VA offers us something nice, especially for 1Ks and Global Services - finally we may have a Star Alliance Carrier (or proxy)  in Australia again after my beloved Ansett (a Star Alliance Airline)  was BUTCHERED by Australian (BA  shareholders )Airlines which became Qantas and also by then British airways shareheld Virgin Australia - the Aussie gov back then chose to support the pom airlines rather than the Australian airline

Virgin Australia - Velocity Rewards

07 Dec 2014

Total posts 181

Is there any background on why they switched from Delta to United? I guess technically VA are a 'new' airline and free to renegotiate any of these. 

Of the US legacy carriers, Delta seems to have the best reputation; but United does have/did have the best network between the US and Australia. 

Perhaps reflecting that United can serve the Transpacific routes without VA running any flights; while Delta needs VA to augment its services?

Etihad - Etihad Guest

21 Jul 2019

Total posts 118

Hello, andyf.

There doesn't seem to have been ructions behind the scenes with VA and DL. It just appears to be a straight forward business decision by the 'new' VA to forge ties with a better connected US carrier, as per their press release. You're right to point out Delta's better reputation amongst the US legacy carriers. They've been my carrier of choice in the US, along with JetBlue simply based on their good reputation for customer service, which is deserved. But - and it's a very big 'but' - United and American have certainly improved their hard product to a point where Delta now lags behind and seems stuck in a rut. I've also detected better customer service from United too, and their network is very substantial. For these reasons, I'm not too upset that VA has broken with DL and gone to UA. I'll certainly be giving them a go.

I agree with sunnybrae's comment here. There was no sign of any rumblings or conflict between Virgin and Delta, they actually had in place a joint venture agreement which was of course disposable after Virgin went into and emerged from administration. Delta even paused that during COVID for obvious reasons.

I think Virgin's move from Delta to United was driven by two things.

1. United's simply a better fit than Delta. United flies to Sydney and Melbourne, and to LA and San Fran and Houston. Delta only did SYD_LAX. And as this article explains, each of those three gateway cities for United has extensive connections to the rest of North and South America.

2. It's becoming increasingly clear that Virgin has no plans of resuming flights to the USA. I can't argue with that, this was an expensive proposition for them, it's better for Virgin just to focus on the domestic market plus the likes of NZ, Bali and Fiji. So they need a very strong US partner to fill that gap, and that means United, especially with SYD-LAX and MEL-LAX and maybe even BNE-LAX flights.

21 Jul 2020

Total posts 17

That’s a pretty big get IMO, well done. I do love how us company’s understand the media. I would love a BNE or even OOL connection but probably not likely 

Virgin Australia - Velocity Rewards

04 Mar 2015

Total posts 6

Curious if VA credit banks can be used towards UA flights? Has anyone heard? 


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