July 25, 2024

CPS

Travel Adventure

How Virgin Atlantic’s CEO plans to bring fun back to flying

4 min read

Virgin Atlantic CEO Shai Weiss says he understands why many air travelers are cranky. Overbooked flights, delays, a myriad of problems with Boeing planes, stricter lounge access, long security lines, lost luggage, and crowded airports have made air travel a shadow of its former glamorous self.

“The public is justified, yes. You know, they pay a lot of money to get a great service,” says Weiss, who in 2019 became CEO of the airline founded by Sir Richard Branson in London 40 years ago this month.

And therein lies the opportunity for Weiss to make his mark on an airline founded by an iconic, some might say eccentric, businessman. Such is Branson’s prominence that both Reuters and the Times of London ran recent pieces on Virgin Atlantic that barely mentioned Weiss while quoting Branson at great length. Financially, there’s also an opportunity for Weiss to help Virgin Atlantic fully return to pre-pandemic strength after filing bankruptcy protection in August 2020, when revenue plunged at the start of the COVID-19 crisis. 

Weiss thinks he can bring the fun back to flying, which he says is Virgin’s big differentiator. The airline is on firmer footing, he says, with operational profit approaching breakeven. Virgin, which only offers long-haul flights, was, after all, the first international airline to offer fliers a sit-up bar in 1989 and, in 2006, replaced archrival British Airways as James Bond’s preferred airline in Casino Royale.

That has ranged from upscale upgrades—last year Virgin introduced its “Retreat Suite,” which features large first-class seats with sliding doors for privacy and the ability to host a dinner companion—to socially progressive policies, such as allowing crew members to display tattoos and wear whatever gendered uniform they choose. It also extends to environmental stewardship, with advocacy for the greater use of sustainable aviation fuel, and additional routes, including a return to London-Toronto flights next year.

“This is a highly competitive market, and you can always find a better carrier. That’s really our unique selling point—being better,” says Weiss.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Fortune: There is so much vitriol thrown at the airline industry on social media. Why is the traveling public so cranky?

Is the public justified? Yes. They pay a lot of money and expect us to be on time, clean, reliable, and safe. The issues of the pandemic and the ability to cope with record demand for travel show that, collectively, we have a few issues to work through. I’d say we are at the top of the pole in addressing these industry problems.

If more governments follow the Netherlands’ lead and limit flights to and from an airport, could we see a return to the days when commercial air travel was the province of affluent people only?

No. There is no doubt that fares are higher, but they are accessible in economy cabins, especially on international travel. I don’t see a return to the ’50s and ’60s. What we are seeing is a transient problem behind rising airfares, not a structural one, and there is a ton of competition. Lots of issues are being conflated, like the Boeing issues and the supply-chain issues that are prohibiting the whole airline system from running smoothly. But this is still a highly competitive market, and you can always find a better carrier.

Last year, Virgin Atlantic operated the first-ever flight fueled entirely by sustainable aviation fuel (SAF). But SAF is still a tiny fraction of the fuel the airline industry needs to address the climate problem, and supply is limited. How do you create a market for SAF to make it economical?

We call this radical collaboration, and it requires all stakeholders, including the major airlines, the oil majors, governments, engine manufacturers, and so on. Government support to create incentives for investors, entrepreneurs, tech companies, and the majors is required to create those SAF plants and a nascent industry. I would say we get there in the next 20 to 30 years.

You now allow flight attendants to have their tattoos exposed and to wear the uniform of the gender they wish. Are you able to do that because Virgin has a reputation for being quirky?

We prefer to say “irreverent.” When we announced the policies, I got complaints, but I knew that we were right. We know that some of the stuff we do is not pleasing to everyone all the time, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t right. It ensures that everyone is welcome, can be their best, and perform at Virgin Atlantic. I know some people will find it too progressive, and that’s okay. Society will catch up. We’re not just running a popularity contest. It’s not a PR stunt.

Virgin Atlantic’s founder, Sir Richard Branson, is a larger-than-life character. What’s it like to work with such an iconoclastic CEO?

I’ve known Richard for 20 years. I’ve been affiliated with Virgin Atlantic for 12 years; I was on the board, and I did the deal with Delta. (Delta Air Lines bought a 49% stake in Virgin in 2012, with Virgin Group holding the rest.) Richard has always let people do whatever they need to do. I talk to him very often or not so often, depending on the situation. But I run the company. He does not. We are not the same person. But we have a lot in common: We try to make customers smile, and we both believe in that ethos. We’re here to have some fun along the way. 

What is one destination Virgin doesn’t serve that you wish it did?

Japan. We took it out about a decade ago because it wasn’t performing well. We were flying into the wrong airport. But Japan would be a nice route.

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