Could the new Virgin Australia be more like Virgin America?

If Virgin Australia 2.0 is modelled on Virgin America 1.0, what should Australian travellers expect?

By David Flynn, June 15 2020
Could the new Virgin Australia be more like Virgin America?

When Virgin Australia takes to the skies under new ownership later this year, there’s a good chance it will closely resemble another airborne member of the Virgin family – Virgin America.

Two cashed-up US investment firms, Boston-based Bain Capital and New York’s Cyrus Capital, are in the ring for a multi-billion dollar takeover of Virgin Australia.

Both have solid commercial ties to Sir Richard Branson and his Virgin empire, and both want to reshape Virgin Australia as a smaller mid-market ‘hybrid’ airline which also regains some of the Virgin superbrand’s unique hip, fun spirit – the same model adopted by Virgin America.

Cyrus Capital senior adviser Jonathan Peachey – himself a former CEO of the Virgin Group’s North American operations – directly cites Virgin America as a template for the rebooted Virgin Australia.

"We had a lot of success in the US with Virgin America with the hybrid business model,” Peachey reflects.

“We think there's a really sweet spot in the middle where Virgin can play very strongly. And that's exactly what we saw in the States with Virgin America.

Virgin America cut a strategic swathe through its competitors: could the new Virgin Australia do likewise?
Virgin America cut a strategic swathe through its competitors: could the new Virgin Australia do likewise?

Virgin America 101

Virgin America was launched in 2007 with Cyrus Capital as a cornerstone investor in what was described as one of the most well-funded airline start-ups ever in the United States.

Branson says his signature US carrier was “started out of frustration… with the goal of making flying good again.”

“As more airlines consolidated and grew larger and more focused on the bottom line, flying in the US became an awful experience” cemented in a “demoralising commercial airline environment.”

Virgin America “brought new competition, lower fares and a focus on creating an enjoyable in-flight experience to the US,” Branson says, which in turn led to airlines both lifting their own game and lowering their fares: “because of Virgin America, the industry finally had to consider the customer.”

Virgin America's relatively small all-Airbus fleet flew primarily along and between the US east and west coasts.
Virgin America's relatively small all-Airbus fleet flew primarily along and between the US east and west coasts.

The airline mainly flew along and between the US east and west coasts, using an all-Airbus A319 and A320 fleet, to which the A321neo was later added.

With only 30 destinations and 67 jets, Virgin America was smaller than its US competitors and focussed on only the most popular and profitable routes.

Alaska Airlines acquired Virgin America in April 2016 for US$4 billion as part of a push to expand its own domestic operations, but in ten years the upstart challenger had clearly made an impact on its competitors as well as its own customers.

So what what was it like to travel on Virgin America, and how was it different to the USA’s established full-service airlines? Executive Traveller asked a number of readers and frequent flyers to share their experiences.

The best business class (for a while)

Chris Brown, a network engineer from Perth, flew with Virgin America from its San Francisco hub to Seattle – a popular route for many of Virgin’s younger ‘tech-set’ passengers.

Brown travelled in first class, which is the US equivalent to Australia domestic business class, and recalls the wide, deep plushly-padded recliners clad in white leather as being “one of the deciding factors in booking with Virgin. at the time, it was fairly much the best domestic first class in the USA.”

More than a dollop of Hollywood-inspired luxe in Virgin America's domestic first class seats and cabin.
More than a dollop of Hollywood-inspired luxe in Virgin America's domestic first class seats and cabin.

“Another first for me was live streaming TV on the inflight entertainment system,” while the cabin crew “were as you'd expect from the Virgin brand: friendly, chatty and attentive” with a “friendly Virgin attitude.”

“It was definitely small things that all added up,” Brown says – and having made many first class flights of 2-3 hours on American Airlines, “the Virgin seat, service and food definitely won out.”

That unique Virgin 'vibe' echoes through the Branson-backed airlines.
That unique Virgin 'vibe' echoes through the Branson-backed airlines.

Melbourne-based James Morgan, who works in television broadcast production, was a regular on several Virgin America flights to New York and Las Vegas.

He recalls that as a ‘non-status’ traveller in economy, the on-the-ground experience didn’t stand out, but “on board is where the service began to shine.”

Greetings and staff interactions were “warm and friendly”, Morgan tells Executive Traveller, “and particular care and attention appeared to have been taken with regards to the appearance of the interior, with consistent and classy lighting and colour accents throughout the cabin.”

“The staff kept a ‘young professionals’ vibe throughout the safety briefing and subsequent service. Ordering food and beverage via the setback video screens was a very welcome addition, with prompt service from the staff who also didn't mind spending the extra few seconds to make polite conversation.”

Virgin America's Main Cabin Extra was the forerunner of Virgin Australia's Economy X.
Virgin America's Main Cabin Extra was the forerunner of Virgin Australia's Economy X.

Service with a smile

Daniel Finlayson, a Melbourne hotel concierge, draws a similar comparison between a generally lack-lustre experience on the ground compared to once you stepped on board, “with the cabin atmosphere like you sometimes see on Virgin Australia with a younger crew.”

Finlayson was full of praise for the “spacious first class cabin”, where each seat had 55” of pitch and “felt amazing. Food and beverage was great, I had a full hot American breakfast, so I have great onboard memories of Virgin America.”

Banana Republic channeled Virgin America's casual vibe to create its crew uniform.
Banana Republic channeled Virgin America's casual vibe to create its crew uniform.

The notion of great service with a bit of on-brand Virgin spark is a recurring one.

“Virgin America definitely had a much more relaxed and friendly vibe compared to the other airlines I've flown in the US” says Caitlin Alvaro, a fitness instructor from Adelaide who flew with the airline to Orlando and Las Vegas in economy.

“I particularly loved the quick and easy option to purchase food and drinks via the inflight entertainment system.”

Virgin America's business class seat boasted a deep recline and an amazing legrest.
Virgin America's business class seat boasted a deep recline and an amazing legrest.

Iain Fogerty, who owns a Brisbane-based medical company with customers across the Asia-Pacific region, tells Executive Traveller he  “enjoyed flying Virgin America immensely and would have continued to keep flying them as a Virgin Australia partner.”

“The eight first class seats on the A320 had a much larger pitch than Virgin Australia business class here in Australia, with great extendable leg rests which I wish Virgin Australia had adopted, as they were far more comfortable than what (the airline) has now.”

“Service was prompt and very friendly, and the cabin crew were absolutely top-shelf, efficient and friendly with regular checks on us for drinks and snacks after the main meal.”

"California cool"

Perth IT architect Joseph Ozdemir also chose Virgin America due to the Virgin Australia partnership, and reflects that “five years ago, US airlines were quite drab and boring. Virgin America was always seen as the 'hip' or 'cool' airline for the target market in California.”

“The cabin crew always seemed happy: younger crew, brighter uniforms, smiles all around.

Service was attentive in first class, although the first class seat while fine for short hops  didn't compare well to some of the planes American Airlines and United Airlines ran across the country.”

Unleash the colourful and very purple LED lighting schemes.
Unleash the colourful and very purple LED lighting schemes.

Philip Schott, who works in Sydney as a customer experience manager for a global hospitality brand, says that even during delays in departure “the gate crew were keeping everyone in good spirits by cracking dad jokes over the PA, while also keeping everyone updated with the latest information.”

“Once we were on board, the crew were all smiles and continued with the jokes and enthusiasm. Throughout the flight, the service was the right mix of attentive and discreet.”

“Compared to other American carriers, Virgin America gave a much more fun vibe, and found ways to put the novelty into the flight – not dissimilar to Southwest, and a very far cry from the corporate-ness of American Airlines or Delta.”

That Virgin vibe

While Virgin America seems to have consistency come out ahead in terms of value, the jokes, the relaxed approach and sense of fun reminded us of a US west coast take on the original Virgin Blue – did it ever become a bit too much?

“It felt on brand, but with an American sense of humour,” Schott tells Executive Traveller. “Virgin Blue had subtle one-liners to suit Aussie taste whereas Virgin America was more like American stand-up comedy where the joke gets more laughs if you shout at the audience.”

“I don't mind casual as long as it's also professional, if that makes sense,” adds Perth network engineer Brown. “I like friendly but not over the top silliness, which Virgin Blue had for a while.”

Also read: Cyrus Capital wants Virgin Australia to be a smaller, mid-market airline

David

David Flynn is the Editor-in-Chief of Executive Traveller and a bit of a travel tragic with a weakness for good coffee, shopping and lychee martinis.

04 Dec 2017

Total posts 54

Back to plastic cups.

Qantas - Qantas Frequent Flyer

07 Aug 2013

Total posts 150

Im not sure what the pun is in your comment - but isn't plastic served in economy, glass in business and first?

23 Oct 2014

Total posts 182

Have a look at the latest Qantas review - Plastic water bottle and a cracker box in J - what's your point ??

This relaunch will be exciting and customer focused, priced well and may even bring some Virgin America signatures such as curb check in somewhere like SYD. This is positive, fresh, modern, innovative and not up tight, old and traditional.

This will appeal to the broad middle market, and I wish them well, I'll be looking forward to flying with V2.0 ASAP, They deserve Australia's support.

24 Aug 2011

Total posts 692

The service of Virgin America was good but, then again, compared with the dreadfulness of most US domestic carriers, anything would be an improvement.

They did project a fun but professional vibe, not dissimilar to VA so it is hard to say who copied who. It was sad when they were acquired by Alaska who, whilst professional, is very dour in comparison.

Virgin Australia - Velocity Rewards

25 Jul 2013

Total posts 56

Definitely agree that Virgin Mk 2 should aim to be a bit more upbeat / funky as per Virgin America and Virgin Atlantic. The cabins have been fairly drab for a while now, and when they rebranded they became fairly formal in their customer service. Little things like not having in-seat USB chargers for devices, and more generous business class seats (737s) with legrests would also make a difference.

Qantas - Qantas Frequent Flyer

24 Jan 2018

Total posts 252

Those Virgin Atlantic cabin crews are positively 'wicked' in their sense of humour and genuine enthusiasm to be o service. Never once have I felt that they'd 'crossed a line' in terms of familiarity, not once. Flew Virgin America twice, exactly the same experience. United Airlines First Class on the other hand ...... too sad to contemplate.

If Cyrus Capital can inject the Virgin America/Atlantic 'vibe' into Virgin 2.0 AND better align reward seat purchases and connecting flights with Virgin Atlantic (to the UK) and Delta (within continental USA), WOW, double-WOW!! That would be exciting.

15 Feb 2013

Total posts 160

Virgin Atlantic was the most god-awful airline I've ever flown in a premium class. The attendants in premium economy were absolute chavs, and were literally throwing inedible meals at people. In “upper class” they were just as bad, refusing to make beds for people on evening flights, and just downright rude. There was no class at all about it, let alone upper class.

Qantas - Qantas Frequent Flyer

24 Jan 2018

Total posts 252

Did you complain as loudly to Virgin America as you've done here several times today?

15 Feb 2013

Total posts 160

1. First post today, so you're wrong on that count.

2. Why would I complain to Virgin America about a Virgin Atlantic post?

Might pay to read things before you comment.

Qantas - Qantas Frequent Flyer

24 Jan 2018

Total posts 252

Did you spend as much time complaining about that dreadful experience to Virgin Atlantic (glad I've never encountered it - ever!) and you've spend berating Virgin Atlantic? Simple question. An honest answer would be appreciated.

15 Feb 2013

Total posts 160

Wow. One comment online and this is your response. Get a grip mate. Yes, I gave feedback to Virgin Atlantic, not that it's any of your business. I've also flown Virgin America and they were great, and I've made plenty of comments to that effect as well. And there are plenty of things I liked about Virgin Australia too. But you were the one that brought up this rosey picture of Virgin Atlantic, which is not reflective of many people's experience (including quite a number I know). So maybe calm down with the keyboard warrior approach, people are happy to have a reasonable discussion, but don't have to justify themselves to you.

Qantas - Qantas Frequent Flyer

24 Jan 2018

Total posts 252

No, this is your 5th since June 15th, always negative about Virgin, but strangely nothing positive about Qantas. Sorry, must be my browser, can't see anything positive in those posts. Perhaps you did them elsewhere?

Rosy picture? I didn't think so, but that's an interesting observation. 'Calm down with the keyboard approach'. Nah, when I see or smell BS (and your 4:42 pm post reeks of it), I'll reserve the right to comment - politely, robustly or in a confrontational manner. So far I think I've been quite polite (but respect your right to feel differently).

Tell you what, I'll give you a 'free kick', tell us something good about Qantas. Share your top-5 thoughts. I'll read but not comment, the floor is yours.

15 Feb 2013

Total posts 160

"Did you complain as loudly to Virgin America as you've done here several times today?" - no, I actually only made ONE comment today on this topic, and it was about Virgin Atlantic, not Virgin America. If it was on America, I'd have plenty of good things to say, they were up there as a favourite airline to fly within the US.

"Did you spend as much time complaining about that dreadful experience to Virgin Atlantic (glad I've never encountered it - ever!) and you've spend berating Virgin Atlantic?" - again I made one comment today, and then simply responded to the tirade of your subsequent posts.

"No, this is your 5th since June 15th" - one comment made about Virgin Blue "fun" announcements, and then a second comment on same topic when someone said it was 20 years ago, when it was actually 10 years ago.

I've got plenty of good and bad things to say about Qantas, not sure why that's relevant as this is an article about Virgin Australia, and the posts were people comparing them with Virgin Atlantic and Virgin America. I'll comment about Qantas on the articles where that's relevant.

Obviously you've got some kind of issue when someone has a different opinion to yours. You had a good experience with Virgin Atlantic and shared it, good for you. I did not, and shared it to provide another view. I don't need to justify that to you or anyone else, and nobody said you had to agree with it. You don't need to jump down people's throats about it just because you don't agree.

You've also got a pretty funny idea of polite "Did you complain as loudly to Virgin America as you've done here several times today?". The polite way to word it would have been "Did you submit any feedback to Virgin Atlantic?". You were downright rude, much like the experience I had with the flight attendants of your favourite airline.

22 Jan 2018

Total posts 81

So VA is being compared to an airline that couldn't sustain a combo of cool and profitable and Eventually got sold to Alaska Airlines! Also, I'd say Jetblue is far better than V America and does long coast to coast routes really well with lie flat beds, etc.

Qantas - Qantas Frequent Flyer

07 Aug 2013

Total posts 150

The Alaska Air Group acquired Virgin America in April 2016, at a cost of approximately $4 billion and continued to operate Virgin America under its own name and brand until the airline was fully merged into Alaska Airlines on April 24, 2018. The last profit Virgin America made for 2015 was US $177.2 million. In 2017 only 1/3 of United trans con flights were lie flat. It was a progressive product coming through in the 20-teen years

Qantas - Qantas Frequent Flyer

24 Jan 2018

Total posts 252

Gotta love those facts, Dan22. Pity some of the blindly loyal Q readers blogging here don't quote facts, just innuendo, plastic cups and negative opinions.

Actually, those same bloggers write more negatives about Virgin than positive about Qantas. I wonder what that could possibly mean?

23 Oct 2014

Total posts 182

I've flow both Virgin America and Jet blue multiple time on numerous Trans con flights in the states, both are brilliant compared the the stale traditional old school legacy airlines. Virgin and Jet blue provides a hip modern corporate image, priced well and generally greet schedules. Last time I flew NY-LA JetBlue had 14 flights per day in December.

The perfect mix would be Virgin America's/ Blues personality and brand with Jet blues Y cabin simplicity catering wise free chips/soft drink - purchase greet salads / wraps and the like, and Jet Blues MINT suites for TC flights, Virgin America seats for east coast and leisure markets.

This would be a formidable mid market offering, and appeals to the majority, especially travellers paying their own way.

15 Feb 2013

Total posts 160

Comments on Virgin Blue by FAs would get tiring - nothing “fun yet professional” in saying “your nearest exit, like a stalker, might be behind you” (probably even less appropriate now than it was 10 years ago), or “welcome to Brisbane, your luggage will be on carousel 2, sometime next Wednesday”.

Qantas - Qantas Frequent Flyer

07 Aug 2013

Total posts 150

That was almost 20 years ago very early V Blue days. They also going for alignment with Virgin America model not Southwest where you may get a FA do an announcement in a bugs bunny voiceover.

15 Feb 2013

Total posts 160

Actually wasn't 20 years ago. I started flying them in late 2010 and they were still doing that. They didn't stop until they were rebranded and told that it didn't fit the new model to compete with Qantas.

Qantas - Qantas Frequent Flyer

24 Jan 2018

Total posts 252

How could you possibly know that? You're surmising (at best).

Delta Air Lines - SkyMiles

14 Apr 2013

Total posts 330

I always enjoyed flying with Virgin America in First. Excellent Service, Food & Drink, although the White Seats weren't so white towards the end lol. I do hope that VA 2.0 does incorporate elements of Virgin America's style, service & flair. Would be nice to have seat back entertainment on the VA B737 fleet.

Qantas - Qantas Frequent Flyer

13 Jul 2012

Total posts 120

>> If Virgin Australia 2.0 is modelled on Virgin America 1.0, what should Australian travellers expect?

Merger with Alaska Airlines in a few years?

Rxm
Rxm

Jetstar Airways - Qantas Frequent Flyer

14 Jan 2017

Total posts 44

"Could the new Virgin Australia be more like Virgin America?" - what defunct? Virgin America is no more. The article sounds more like a PR exercise for Cyrus Capital and Branson. Having flown over a thousand times in 99.9% of flights the only interaction you have with staff is the exchange of about half a dozen words- a couple on boarding and a few during service. How far can friendly staff and funky interiors get you. In the end you are just sitting down on a similar sized seat as any other airline hoping to keep to yourself. The only time you really rely on the staff is when there is a disruption and its those times I have found the Virgin veneer quickly cracks.

Qantas - Qantas Frequent Flyer

07 Aug 2013

Total posts 150

For some in business the staff interaction makes a huge impact - cpuntless times over the years flying VA to LA and Abu Dhabi the staff socialised with me at the bar, made cocktails etc- it was fun, the flight went quick and I was happy. Had similar experiences on Etihad and Emirates although ecurri g theme here is that onboard bars are present.

Qantas - Qantas Frequent Flyer

24 Jan 2018

Total posts 252

I've always found the same when flying to LHR via LAX. But then, I haven't flown those sectors "a thousand times" yet.

A thousand times, WOW Rxm, you must have lifetime Platinum One with Qantas if you've flown that often. What's the Chairman's Lounge like?

Virgin Australia - Velocity Rewards

07 Dec 2014

Total posts 155

Is this really the key to being a popular hybrid airline? Staff should be friendly and helpful - beyond that, I'm not sure if that's why people choose to fly them.

Surely the key is how to keep costs down without being perceived by the customer as 'cheap'. From a customer perspective, JetBlue seem to have achieved this balance quite well. Virgin America wasn't too bad either.

They need to keep their cost base well below Qantas, so they can better compete on fares, while keeping their service offering (both hard and soft product) well above Jetstar, so they can compete on service. I'm sure that's easier said than done, but all the above discussion about 'fun vibes' misses that entirely.

Virgin Australia - Velocity Rewards

14 Mar 2017

Total posts 145

So, how is this any different from what Virgin was already doing, exactly?

Virgin America was always style over substance; while they managed to provide onboard service on some routes that was ever so slightly better than other US carriers, that is a very, very low bar to clear. They were never competitive in the transcontinental markets, and lacked the basics which frequent and premium travelers expect. There was never a cohesive lounge network, barely any premium ground service, priority boarding was basically a myth, and the whole operation had a generally amateur-hour feel to it. This is not a model that should be emulated.

Qantas - Qantas Frequent Flyer

25 May 2017

Total posts 73

If Virgin !! comes to life and if it is going to be a mix market airline not much will change. QF has the Corporate market and VA had the want to be market. VA never did the business traveler justice. The lounges not much better than a bus waiting room, no real benefits for Platinum members compared to QF (QF Business lounge is 1000 times better than VA) The mix message re partners that over the past 2 years kept leaving or near impossible to use your points with. Lets face it, VA 11 will be not much better than Jetstar. Again a lost opportunity to attract the high yield business traffic. Its the staff I feel for. I would scrap VA and start again. The brand is know as a budget airline and it appears that is how it may be re born.

Virgin Australia - Velocity Rewards

13 Nov 2015

Total posts 10

I'll never understand why any Executive Traveller reader hates on Virgin (or Qantas) - you've clearly had it too good for too long.

VA never did the business traveler justice. Rubbish. It was VA who pushed the transcontinental bar to International J standards for both QF and VA. In the case of QF the standard is probably higher than Int.

The lounges not much better than a bus waiting room. I don't reckon you've spent much time waiting for a bus. The QF J lounges are better, QP, hardly. The VA curbside lounge entrance was/is a fantastic experience, especially for a business traveller.

...near impossible to use your points with. You've got to be kidding. The ability to xfer points to KrisFlyer opens up ridiculous points availability - I'm yet to not be able to get a J flight with SIA, either last minute or way out.

There's plenty of things that VA didn't get right - same as QF. Priority Luggage and Priority Boarding - never had a problem with VA - how about QF?

If we end up with VA as an LCC, then we're all going to suffer.

Qantas - Qantas Frequent Flyer

24 Jan 2018

Total posts 252

Honestly BLAMEX, you and AJ would be better placed lifting the Qantas call centre work ethos, than whinging (bitching?) on about Virgin. Something is wrong when the Qantas web site can't process a return domestic airfare (BNE-MEL-MQL) for July, and when trying to book directly with a person, making the caller wait 48 minutes. These are F A C T S.

I mean .... really - it's ALL ABOUT SERVICE. Focus on it just a little more, please.

Qantas - Qantas Frequent Flyer

24 Jan 2018

Total posts 252

"The Qantas Business lounge is 1000 times better than VA" - cough cough. Honestly BLAMEX, did it not cross your mind, not even once, that some of us have used both lounges? I honestly don't think it did.

The business lounge is better in terms of decor (not so in staff service), but does not justify the fare premium compared to VA business fares.

Please old Boy, keep it real and remotely factual.

Qantas - Qantas Frequent Flyer

22 Nov 2019

Total posts 31

yes please, virgin usa were a great airline, clean, efficient, minimal intervention, order on demand booze and food on seat back screen, which usually tastes better than the muck 'Neil Perry' serves up front on the red roo.

2A
2A

23 Feb 2017

Total posts 15

"Younger crew"? Really? It's 2020. I'll be sticking with the 'older crew' at Qantas. RC

Virgin Australia - Velocity Rewards

16 Apr 2016

Total posts 13

I flew Virgin America several times LAX-SFO in front row of Main cabin (economy)

I looked enviously at the white business seat with foot rests and leg support, VA 2.0 please take note

Loved the food service as it was ordered from seat back screen menu either prepaid by ticket or with credit card on the seat back. Especially loved the use of regular commercial packaged snacks not the no-name, complimentary, weird concoctions handed out by VA 1.0

The LAX lounge was very basic but then again most US airlines lounges are basic when compared to what we enjoy in APAC.

Etihad - Etihad Guest

19 Mar 2018

Total posts 39

I wish the new Virgin Australia could be more like V Australia.

I felt Virgin Australia's branding took it far too formal, and white and purple do not scream warm and inviting, It felt like Malaysia Airlines when they introduced the "smarties" colored seats. You can't deliver the goods without the spirit and soul of it.

One thing that fascinates me is why was Virgin Australia so far removed from Virgin Atlantic branding and positioning, and whhy did it lack any flair of Singapore Airlines, the warmth of Hainan Airlines, the class of Etihad and the prestige of Nanshan (private aviation).

Virgin Atlantic embodied the Britishness of its base, Virgin America too. Hell even Virgin Nigeria was not bad. To me Virgin Australia juust doesn't scream Australia. Even Singapore Airlines livery hints at more Aussie than VA.

26 Jul 2011

Total posts 9

I've flown domestically in the US for 11 years now. It is generally a terrible experience, and makes AU domestic travel look incredible.

Out of all the airlines I've flown (VA, Delta, United, AA, Alaskan, and Spirit), VA had consistently been the standout. Rarely delayed, and great service on the ground and in the air. Virgin Australia had a solid offering, but if they adapt to be more like VA in the States, I can only see upside.


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