Sky-high service

posted on 5th June 2018

Marcia MacLeod discovers that Virgin Atlantic likes to be different to its competitors.

“So many airlines sell on price alone. Virgin Atlantic is different,” emphasises Joe Thompson, general manager, airport operations. “We don’t go to that many destinations, so we differentiate on service. This flows through to our supplier: we need to obtain the best combination of price and quality, so we expect our suppliers to work at a competitive price level but to also understand our service requirements. We want to work with partners that recognise that service is very important to us.”

This focus on service is seen throughout all ground operations at the 35 destinations Virgin now offers (including three new routes this year with the launch of Cancun, Vancouver and Mumbai). Take check-in, for example. “We don’t want to use a ground handler who will just process our customers through check-in,” Thompson adds. “They need to do so with a smile and make eye contact. They need to understand that holidays are important to our customers and that travelling through an airport can be stressful.”

To achieve the level of service the airline desires, Virgin Atlantic employs its own staff on site at airports where is no choice of ground handler, usually the smaller destinations. “We do that in the Caribbean, for example,” Thompson points out. “It is a small airport and business on that route is light. There is only one handler so we need an on-site manager to ensure service is being delivered in the Virgin Atlantic way.

“Many of our airports only have one ground handler, which may or may not be a fully-owned subsidiary of the airport authority. Some airports don’t have any airport authority-owned handlers.”

Recent focus has been on catering: the economy service was updated and improved last November, while a new upper-class meal service came on stream on 1 March. The economy service includes a new food offering and a restructure of service processes so that passengers don’t have to sit with their finished trays on their laps for too long.

“On many flights, we’re serving desserts separately, after the main meal trays have been removed,” explains Simon Soni, head of in-flight services. “We’ve also introduced a new usherette tray for serving ice creams later on in the flight.”

The upper-class changes are more significant. “We upgraded the food, added ‘graze’ options such as Caesar salads and hamburgers which can be ordered whenever the passenger wishes,” adds Soni. “Express menus have been introduced on shorter night flights to allow passengers to sleep for a longer time, if they prefer. We also changed all the china and cutlery. We’ve switched from flutes to big balloon glasses for champagne and altered the way in which we serve breakfast, which is now completely customisable and includes a full vegetarian English breakfast or an express meal of cereals, bagels and bacon sandwiches.”

On longer flights, Virgin Atlantic has also introduced a new cheese trolley, including biscuits, fruit and chutney, all served with a glass of port, while some flights feature an afternoon tea trolley, offering each passenger their own mini cake stand full of sandwiches, cakes, scones, jam and clotted cream.

But these changes have implications for suppliers. “The balloon glasses require different handling,” Soni points out. “We have to ensure our suppliers understand that. They also have to understand the type of food we wish to offer. We may want English or other Western meals, but we may want to include a local speciality.”

Virgin Atlantic’s procedure standard for catering runs to at least 50 pages, covering ‘everything from our expectation of liability and indemnity to safety and hygiene.’ So do the procedure standards for other activities, such as cleaning, lounge service and check-in.

The airline currently runs its own Clubhouse (lounge) facilities at Heathrow and Gatwick, Newark and JFK, Boston, Washington, San Francisco, Tokyo, Hong Kong and Johannesburg, but uses shared facilities at smaller airports. A new JFK Clubhouse opened in March this year, taking lounge facilities from landside to airside.

“This allows passengers to rest in the lounge without worrying about having to queue up for security,” Soni points out.

The JFK Clubhouse also offers a beauty bar where customers can get their hair and nails done. This is the first airport outside the UK to offer Virgin Atlantic passengers this service.

Most ground services – including catering, check-in, departure control, aircraft cleaning, baggage handling, lounge services (cleaning, food and management) etc, are purchased centrally from the UK, although Virgin Atlantic employs procurement professionals in the United States and some other areas. All tenders are handled by an independent part of Virgin Atlantic to ensure a robust and fair tender process. Even where central procurement has taken control of ground service suppliers, however, the purchasing professionals work closely with local staff, to ensure local needs are met.

“We do the same with the in-flight service,” Soni adds. “We recently went to a meeting with suppliers in Tokyo to ensure they continue to meet our standards and the requirements of the local market. There are areas of the world where provision of third- party services are not as good as in others.

“Consistency can be a problem,” he continues. “We want the same high level of service across the network. Trying to deliver that, even at stations where there is only one supplier, can be a challenge. We find that even in the UK, when big events happen, we have to ensure staff continues to deliver the high level of service for which we are known.”

Virgin Atlantic won’t reveal who supplies its ground services or the length of contracts. However, Thompson has admitted that where ground service suppliers have a greater impact on passengers, the airline would prefer a longer contract. “Whenever you change suppliers, there is a bedding in and learning period,” he points out. “We often don’t realise the full benefits until further down the line. And as we view our suppliers as partners, we have to allow time to develop a partnership.”

There are a couple of other areas of concern to Virgin Atlantic. The first is corporate social responsibility and sustainability – in other words, the environment. Suppliers are expected to work to the highest environmental/sustainable levels. Again using catering as an example, suppliers need to address package waste and food standards.

“Although environmental and sustainable standards vary worldwide, there is a greater global awareness now of the need for corporate social responsibility and sustainability,” says Soni. “We’re even working with villages in Africa, where women are making jewellery for sale as part of our duty-free range.”

The other area Virgin Atlantic would like to see improved is global harmonisation of processes and service levels from suppliers. “We operate globally and purchase services from the same suppliers in different locations,” Thompson emphasises. “We want to work with partners who also operate on a truly global basis, with the same processes, standards, service levels, and so on. But typically suppliers aren’t as joined up as we want them to be, which means both of us are missing out on opportunities for improved efficiencies and cost savings.”

It will come – helped, at least in part, by those comprehensive procedure standards for Virgin Atlantic’s ground service suppliers.