Interview: Virgin Atlantic chief executive Shai Weiss

The carrier’s boss hails the outlook for the future as it celebrates its 40th anniversary with the launch of its 15th US service

What has been your personal highlight of your time at Virgin Atlantic?

There have been so many highlights in my 12 years at Virgin Atlantic and five-and-a-half years as CEO. Two that stand out include being on board Flight100, the world’s first transatlantic flight on 100% Sustainable Aviation Fuel, last November. We proved if enough SAF can be made, we will fly it and we open-sourced our learnings so the entire sector could benefit from it. That was special.

And last week I was in Las Vegas celebrating forty years of Virgin Atlantic with our founder, and my friend, Richard Branson and our amazing people and partners. One for the memory book.

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It seemed during the first year of the pandemic that VA might not survive. Now the airline appears to have a new lease of life.

It’s true, over the years we have faced into fierce challenges and competitors, including the pandemic. To the point that some bet we wouldn’t be here today. Yet here we are.  Stronger than ever. Not afraid of competition.  To the contrary, it spurs us into constant action to be the best for our customers and partners.

Virgin Atlantic has bucked many airlines’ strategies by actively courting the leisure agency community in recent years. Will that strategy continue?

As a full service omni-channel carrier, the trade, both in leisure and corporate, has been essential to our success and more recently to our transformation. They supported us through Covid and they remain loyal to us today. We’re comfortable selling direct but we have an ethos of working with the best partners. The trades represent 35% of our revenue and their support is constant and stronger than ever.

There have been a range of route launches in recent years, and some closures. Where do you see potential for growth in the Virgin Atlantic network?

As a flag carrier, we’ll fly to where customers love to travel and the USA will always be our heartland. Last week, in true Virgin Atlantic style, we celebrated the launch of our 15th service to the USA, as we commenced flights between Manchester and Las Vegas. The new service complements our existing daily flying to Las Vegas from London Heathrow, as we expand our network, and it supports customer demand for premium leisure travel from our home in the north, Manchester, and the northwest.

We also announced our return to Canada. Our first route to the country in over a decade will commence next summer, with direct flights between London Heathrow and Toronto Pearson International Airport, marking our expansion in North America and Canada’s financial hub.

Outside North America, we see huge opportunities in India.  In March, we launched a new daily service to Bengaluru, our third destination and fourth daily service to India.  Since 2019, we have increased capacity to India by 350%, our largest area of growth outside the United States and by 2025 we’ll have over one million seats to the country.

We’re always reviewing our route network so watch this space.

As a disruptor yourself, how do you feel about ever-growing competition on transatlantic routes?

Competition is our reason for being and offering choice is the reason we exist. When Richard founded Virgin Atlantic in 1984 it was to provide something different and exciting and to challenge the status quo in aviation.  It’s what drives us to constantly do better.

Virgin Atlantic has been among the leaders of the move to sustainable aviation fuel, but environmental groups say SAF is not a viable long-term solution for emissions reduction. How do you respond to that?

After fleet renewal, SAF is the only viable mid-term solution for decarbonising aviation. It’s fundamental for aviation to meet Net Zero. We proved with Flight100 last year – the world’s first 100% SAF transatlantic flight – that SAF is not only safe but can reduce lifecycle emissions of up to 70% as well as provide benefits beyond CO2. Other technologies are decades away for long-haul aviation. SAF is a decarbonisation solution for now.

The challenge for us in our pathway to Net Zero 2050 is the scale-up of SAF. We must now see urgent action from government, oil majors and private capital to invest in the production capacity needed to deliver a UK SAF industry. We’ve proven that if enough SAF is made, we will fly it.

What more should the aviation sector be doing and what is required from governments and policy makers in this area?

We’ve proven that the challenge of SAF is not operational. Government must deliver on its Jet Zero Strategy and deliver a UK SAF industry. To get there, we need the SAF mandate regularly reviewed to ensure it reflects both SAF availability and affordability, government to invest in a Revenue Certainty Mechanism (RCM) and have this legislated by 2026 – any further delays will breed further uncertainty for airlines and investors.

How do you feel about the rise of artificial intelligence and what impact do you see it having on the travel industry and its workforce?

Innovation is part of our DNA and we’re excited to see where the use of AI can take us and our industry. I believe it can have transformative potential for our sector – from seamless bookings and personalised recommendations to driving operational excellence. We are still in an early phase of adoption but at Virgin Atlantic we are trialling several use cases, including revenue management and our customer care teams.

One example is our partnership with Fetcherr to overhaul the way we optimise our revenues. The Generative Pricing Engine (GPE) recommends the best real-time market price moves, based on predicted actions of a wide range of variables. We’re currently trialling on several routes and looking to roll it out more widely.

Another example is within our customer care team, where we’re trailing Microsoft’s Power Virtual Agent for web messaging, powered by ChatGPT API to support fast, effective delivery of information to customers. I see this as a great opportunity to sophisticate how our dedicated agents provide amazing customer service.

Do you envisage VA flying the next 40 years and maintaining its distinctive character?

Forty years ago, Richard brought a pioneering new approach to air travel which challenged the status quo, revolutionising customer experience, delivering exceptional service, and bringing competition to the skies.  40 years later and we have evolved from a challenger to a leader, as demonstrated with Flight100.  In our ruby year our spirit is stronger than ever, and I just know the things that set us apart will keep us ahead.

Looking ahead we’re going to push ahead with our mission of sustainable profitability and becoming the most loved travel company. We will evolve our customer experience and continue to fly one of the youngest and cleanest fleets across the Atlantic, leading on decarbonising aviation.

Most of all, our people will always be our superpower – the red thread that keeps us flying miles above the rest, from 1984 to today, and into the future. I’m looking forward to 40 more years of shaking up the skies together and making aviation a better place, just have we have tried to do since 1984.

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