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 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.”
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.”
“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.”
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.”
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.”
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.”
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.”
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.”
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.”