Virgin Blue gears up for

By David Flynn, February 22 2011
Virgin Blue gears up for

There’s a seismic shift happening at Virgin Blue. A new name, new logo and new brand. New planes with new livery. New business class seats, new cabins and new lounges. New routes. New alliances with partner airlines. New uniforms.

It’s all part of what staff internally refer to as ‘the new Blue’. Yet ironically, there might not be any ‘Blue’ in the new name or the new-look airline once CEO John Borghetti finishes transforming the low-cost carrier into a mixed-class full-service airline.

Borghetti is certain to field some questions over ‘the new Blue’, and the airline’s whole new direction, when he fronts the media in Sydney at noon tomorrow for a briefing on Virgin Blue’s half-year financial results.

At the same time, barely one city block away, Virgin Blue’s new uniforms will feature on the catwalk at Sydney’s Westfield Shopping Centre – and, according to FlightGlobal blogger Will Horton, will make their in-flight debut on Virgin Blue services from that morning. (The stylish outfits reportedly take their cues from Virgin Atlantic, from the long red jackets worn by female crew to the purple accenting of scarves and ties.) 

Here’s a rundown of what else will be new in the new Blue.

New name, new logo and new brand

Borghetti wants to unify the airline’s four operational arms – Virgin Blue, V Australia, Pacific Blue and Polynesian Blue – into a single brand.

Virgin Australia is the front-runner, as it leverages the powerhouse Virgin name.

The only catch is that Singapore Airlines, with its 49% stake in Virgin Atlantic, has the final say over use of the Virgin name on international routes (hence why none of Virgin Blue’s three overseas services carry the familiar Virgin moniker).

Virgin Blue chief John Borghetti wants to see the same brand painted on all these tails

But there’s undeniably a big change ahead: Borghetti has hired Hans Hulsbosch, who redesigned Qantas’ corporate identity and modernised the iconic flying kangaroo logo, as the airline’s creative director to oversee not just the new brand but the new Blue's entire image.

New planes

Virgin Blue will double its Airbus A330 fleet early year, with two new airliners plying the coast-to-coast route from either Brisbane or Melbourne to Perth, in addition to the A330 Sydney-Perth services slated to begin this May.

But the new backbone of Virgin Blue’s domestic fleet will be the 50 factory-fresh Boeing 737-800 ‘Next Generation’ aircraft due for delivery starting June 2011. The airline also holds order options for a further 55 of the aircraft.

These could include Boeing’s slick and spacious new Sky Interior cabin (above), which is also tipped to appear on Qantas' new 737-800s later in the year.

On the international front, while Borghetti sees that codesharing alliances are vital to the new Blue’s global reach, there’s still an argument to be made that V Australia needs to boost its fleet beyond the current five Boeing 777-300ERs.

New business class seats

Borghetti’s goal of boosting Virgin Blue’s share of the business travel market from 5 percent to 20 percent over the next two years will hinge on turning the low-cost carrier into a true alternative to Qantas.

Virgin Blue will need more than a song and dance routine to attract business travellers

On the aircraft itself this mean new business class seats and cabins, meals, service and more, rather than just offering a few extra inches of legroom.

To date there’s been precious little clue as to what Virgin Blue has planned for the pointy end of the plane, making this perhaps the most eagerly-awaited part of ‘the new Blue’ puzzle. It will certainly make more of a real-world difference to business travellers and frequent flyers than whatever logo is painted on the plane and printed on the ticket.

(Virgin Blue’s vacuum, meanwhile, has left Qantas to do the running with its own flurry of announcements ranging from Next-Generation Check-in to revamped lounges, a Neil Perry menu, Marc Newson seats and personal in-flight video screens, along with the hasty removal of the much-hated middle seat in the business class cabins of its newest Airbus A330s.)

New lounges

A three-month rolling renovation program is already underway at Virgin Blue’s Sydney and Melbourne lounges, with Brisbane to follow – the makeovers are all due to be completed by the end of April.

V Australia’s premium passengers  – those seated in business class or holding Velocity Gold status under the V Australia and Virgin Blue frequent flyer program – also have access to Air New Zealand’s Koru Lounges at Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane international airports.

Virgin Blue is also building a new shared lounge with partner airline Etihad at Sydney international airport for business-class, first-class and high-status frequent flyer passengers.

New alliances

We’ve already seen Virgin Blue form strategic codesharing partnerships with Etihad and Air New Zealand (indeed, Air New Zealand liked the smell of Virgin Blue so much that the Kiwi carrier plonked down $145 million for a near-15% stake in Virgin Blue).

Borhgetti is still chasing US government approval for a similar tie-up with Delta Airlines to open up the lucrative North American market, and has his eye on a further alliance with one (or possibly more) Asian airlines in a push for Asia-Pacific business travellers.

Borghetti has cited Hong Kong, Singapore, China, India, Japan and Korea as key targets, admitting that Virgin Blue’s network needs “mainstream Asian ports (to) attract the corporate traveller”.

"Our international strategy recognises that it is impossible for any airline based at this end of the world to offer a global network on its own" he says. "Even 50 or 60 aircraft devoted to international services would not be enough. However, if you have the right alliances and partnerships you can offer hundreds of destinations with just a small fleet of international aircraft."

New competition

All of this is welcome news to Australia’s business travellers as it injects new competition into the local market. We’ve already seen Qantas lifting its game in readiness for the new Blue, and that’s before Borghetti even dives into the details. Australian Business Traveller says “bring it on!”

Australian Business Traveller will be filing live from tomorrow’s Virgin Blue media conference with updates via our Twitter feed from 12 noon EST - follow @AusBT and watch for the #virginblue tag.


Our rolling coverage of Virgin Blue's 'game change' plan continues with the following articles:




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.

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