An Airline People Love

Virgin America Puts Customer Experience First And Foremost

Since the airline’s launch in 2007, Virgin America has established extremely high standards for both customer service and the overall customer experience. Moreover, the carrier continues to add to its industry-trendsetting track record of success.

Success among air carriers within the Virgin Group is as unmistakable as Virgin founder and visionary Richard Branson’s business omnipresence around the world. However, that success has not been brought about by chance.

Virgin Group companies are known for being innovative and entrepreneurial, and for shaking up industries in which incumbents have largely lost sight of the customer, including our own airline industry. Many of the Virgin Group companies are not the largest in their sectors, but almost without exception, their brand recognition exceeds their market presence.

Companies in the Virgin Group understand their identity and their objectives. A case in point is Virgin America, which began flying in 2007, but is already a role model for other airlines that want to experience some near-term business triumphs in the process of becoming mainstays within the industry.

The business minds, including Richard Branson, behind Virgin America knew where they wanted to take the airline before its first aircraft was acquired, thanks to solid research on the customer experience and how to improve it.

“Virgin America’s mission from the beginning — even before our service launch in August 2007 — was to design a new kind of airline with a better guest experience at the center,” explains Amy Burr, director of corporate strategy management for Virgin America.

At the outset, Virgin America dedicated itself to listening to travelers and then responding to their needs and concerns.

“We started by asking travelers what bothered them most about the travel experience,” Burr said. “As we designed our airline, we tailored the Virgin America product offering in response to what travelers told us.”

Make Flying Good Again

Launched six years ago, Virgin America is on a mission to “make flying good again” with brand new planes, appealing fares, superior service and an array of innovative amenities. The airline has created 2,600 new jobs and has swept major travel awards for its quality of service.

For Virgin America, the overall guest experience is paramount. All other fundamentals support and augment the superior guest experience for which the airline strives.

The airline industry is by definition technologically advanced. But customer-facing technology within the context of the industry had not always kept pace with innovation seen in other consumer products. Aircraft had become safer and more capable — with enormous strides in the areas of engine reliability, fuel efficiency and range — but the passenger experience, especially in the U.S. domestic airline industry, was often lackluster.

Armed with that knowledge, Virgin America set forth on a mission to provide a better guest experience in the U.S. domestic market. Among other innovations, Virgin America’s cabins have a look and feel that is different from any direct competitor, with mood lighting and an advanced- design interior.

The airline’s Red™ in-flight entertainment (IFE) system offers passengers live television, on- demand movies, some 4,000 music tracks, and the ability to order food and drinks on demand.

“We’re constantly thinking about the next iteration of Red, so we can continue offering a better onboard experience that provides guests with even more choices in terms of when and what to eat and drink, how to entertain themselves, and how to get work done when traveling,” says Burr. “We want our cabins to offer all the choices you’d have in your own living room — plus a few extras.”

Food and beverage offerings onboard Virgin America aircraft include artisanal-quality foods from local purveyors in the markets Virgin America serves. The goal is to provide the kinds of food and beverages guests would enjoy even if they were not on a flight.

None of this would be possible, however, without personnel — the airline refers to employees as teammates — dedicated to making Virgin America’s customers feel special, while shaking up the industry.

“Recruiting and training the right people — from our reservations and guest-care teammates to our airport and in-flight teammates — is a key component of our success,” Burr said. “We strive for a company culture in which teammates are engaged and challenged to elevate the guest experience.”

All new employees attend “Red Carpet,” an orientation program, which introduces them to the global Virgin brand and Virgin America’s unique guest-centric philosophy.

Exercises emphasize teamwork and communication — critical in a service business — with special elements including a competitive scavenger hunt in the airline’s hometown of San Francisco, California.

In addition, every Virgin America teammate attends an annual one-of-a-kind program called Refresh. Every teammate at Virgin America (from pilots to in-flight to airport teammates and head- quarters folks) participates in this two-day annual “brand bath.” Refresh runs twice-weekly from January through April, and all 2,600 of the airline’s team go through headquarters just south of San Francisco International Airport to take part in the unique program focused on Virgin America’s innovative service model.

Inside Virgin America Aircraft

Virgin America’s all-new Airbus A320 aircraft have highly customized design and interiors that include 12 shades of one-of-a-kind moodlighting that adapt to outside light; 110-volt power outlets, USB and RJ‐45 Ethernet jacks near every seat; 9-inch video touch screens; and QWERTY keyboard/remote controls at every seat.

Refresh allows the airline’s teammates to come together once a year to train in best practices and reconnect with each other and the airline’s overall mission to elevate the guest experience. One year, Refresh hosted a local comedy improv (improvisation) group that took teammates through exercises that helped them improve their on-the-job “improv” skills in dealing with the unpredictability of airline operations on a day-to-day basis.

Virgin America’s approach to business is simple — flying should be fun.

To that end, Virgin America was a key part of the proof-of-concept application group for the new SabreSonic® Customer Experience Manager application from Sabre Airline Solutions® . Data-management tools such as Customer Experience Manager are crucial in enabling airlines to tailor the guest experience for their passengers.

“With relevant and timely data, we can be exact in changing or even slightly tweaking our product offering for our guests,” Burr explains. “We think the next phase of a positive customer experience involves increasing the customer’s ability to personalize the experience at all touchpoints.”

Virgin America’s Red IFE system already allows for significant personalization of the air-travel experience — with on-demand food service, seat-to-seat chat, and a recently unveiled seat-to-seat food- and drink-ordering feature that enables guests to treat a friend or another guest onboard.

The customer-experience element is perhaps the most critical component of Virgin America’s approach to establishing and building a successful business. In fact, the keys to effective leadership in this most competitive of industries are really not complex.

To Virgin America, customer loyalty is a function of each customer’s excellent, consistent experience with the airline. The airline’s tenacious focus on its guests has paid off. Since inaugurating service in 2007, it has won numerous travel awards every year, including:

  • “Best Domestic Airline” in Condé Nast Traveler’s Reader’s Choice Awards for five consecutive years;
  • “Best Business/First Class” in Condé Nast Traveler’s Business Travel Poll for five consecutive years;
  • “Best Domestic Airline” in Travel + Leisure’s World’s Best Awards for six consecutive years;
  • No. 1 in Class in Zagat’s Global Airlines Survey in 2008, 2009 and 2010;
  • Best North American Airline for First-Class Service, Best In-Flight Service in North America and Best Domestic Airline by Premier Travel Magazine.

The airline was also ranked No. 1 performing U.S. airline in the 2013 Airline Quality Rating Report, its first year of eligibility. And this is not an exhaustive list by any means.

Much positive feedback regarding Virgin America results from its frequent, intentional communication with customers. The airline has embraced the challenge of leveraging popular social media platforms such as Twitter and Facebook for guest care, with a team at headquarters devoted to responding to guest concerns via these channels.

Virgin America is also the only carrier with in-flight WiFi on every aircraft, which enables the airline to interact with its customers through social media while they are onboard the aircraft as well as enable customers to work while in flight.

Virgin America’s codeshare and interline partnerships, including those with Singapore Airlines, Virgin Australia, Hawaiian Airlines, Virgin Atlantic and Emirates, are also critical elements in the airline’s rapid rise within the hierarchy of the greater global air-transportation industry.

Addressing Climate Issues

As the only California-based airline, Virgin America is committed to finding new ways to lead the industry on climate issues. Its brand new fleet is up to 25 percent more fuel and carbon efficient than the average fleet in the United States.

Virgin America carefully selects its business partners based on measurable levels of customer service and care — the airline looks for partners who, like Virgin America, have been recognized for innovative product offerings and excellence in guest service. The airline also looks to partner with carriers with equivalent cabins and classes of services and similarly rich IFE offerings.

“We want our guests to enjoy a seamless experience when they connect from one of our flights to a Virgin America partner flight,” Burr explains.

Advanced technology plays a crucial role in helping Virgin America achieve the highest levels of customer service possible.

Working with Sabre Airline Solutions, the airline has expanded its loyalty program, Elevate, and last year the airline added Gold and Silver status tiers to the program to recognize and reward the most frequent flyers. In just a little more than six years, Elevate has more than 2.6 million members.

The technology company has also equipped Virgin America with tools that are crucial for enhancing the guest experience, including a guest compensation solution to assist with irregular operations or flight cancellations. In addition, the airline participates in the Sabre® global distribution system, which has increased its visibility with business travelers.

“Technologies such as these, as well as Customer Experience Manager, are essential in providing airlines with tools to monitor the passenger experience,” explains Burr. “We’re looking forward to working with Sabre Airline Solutions on several other new initiatives, such as a data hub, to enable us to further tailor the airline experience for our guests.”

The explosion of technology along with the upsurge in data generated across all industries has enabled Virgin America to meet customer expectations and differentiate itself from others in the market across customer touchpoints.

For example, technology and design enhance the guest experience when travelers arrive at the airport. At check-in, guests arriving at Virgin America’s home base at SFO’s Terminal 2 or T2 find lower counters that eliminate barriers between teammates and guests, white kiosk check-in tables with touch-screen panels, and a welcoming concierge desk look-and-feel.

On-demand Amenities

Virgin America’s Red system is generations ahead of any in-flight entertainment system in the United States. It allows guests to control what they watch, when and what they want to eat and drink, and what they want to listen to via touch screen or remote control.

Just beyond the U.S. Transportation Security Administration checkpoint, guests encounter a “recompose” lounge that serves as a soothing oasis for flyers to regroup post security, beautiful living-room-like gate areas, the best in local and organic dining, elevated laptop work tables with outlets and WiFi, and mood lighting.

The airline’s first terminal lounge, called The Loft at Los Angeles International Airport, also reflects its “guest-first” design aesthetic and the Virgin America brand identity. The Loft extends the airline’s signature cabin experience into the airport space with amenities including WiFi, a cocktail bar and light dining.

In terms of other recent enhancements to its guest care, in May, Virgin America opened a new contact center — its second — in the Dallas, Texas, area, allowing the airline to accommodate growing guest volume and providing geographic redundancy to its Seattle contact center. The Dallas contact center supports and augments the airline’s in-house social media guest care team, with staff dedicated to monitoring guest comments and questions posted on this medium.

Again, it all comes back to the guests.

“There is a considerable revenue-generation aspect to our focus on guest care,” Burr said. “Once people fly us, they tend to stay with us. We think this is in no small part because we put the guest first.”