Thursday, March 24, 2011

Look, a Flying Saucer!

Imagine my surprise when, during the long flight from Los Angeles to Australia on VAustralia, I lifted my tea cup and saw a complete printed sentence on the saucer. As I squinted my weary eyes, surprise turned to amusement: "Look, a flying saucer!'' I read.

But then I should have expected the unexpected - even whimsy - on V Australia, a member of the far-flung Virgin-branded airlines. Like its airborne cousins -Virgin Atlantic Airways being the best -known - V Australia puts some of the fun back in flying. I say "some'' because airlines can do nothing about airports, and necessary but often-clumsy security rules. But while not neglecting to fly safely and efficiently, V Australia - the long-haul, international arm of Australia's number two carrier, Virgin Blue - reflects the UK's Virgin Group founder Richard Branson's roots in the entertainment industry: it never forgets to entertain.

A few words of explanation. Ten-year-old Virgin Blue and two-year-old V Australia are minority-owned by Branson, the media-savvy British billionaire and floppy-haired entrepreneur. Like Virgin America ( in the United States, Virgin Blue and its affiliates - collectively known as the Virgin Blue Group of Airlines ( - license the Virgin brand from Branson, who forgoes operational control and harvests revenue from his stake. But while Branson doesn't run these airlines, clearly his corporate DNA is in them. And that's a good thing.

There is, for example, the stand-up, six-person bar in V Australia's business class. There are the stylish black, V-necked PJs, also in business class. There is the wide-ranging and easy to use in-flight entertainment system - important on those 13- and 14-hour trans-Pacific flights between Australia and North America. There is the cool mood lighting that makes you feel you've just strolled into a club. And there is a really charming touch when the interior cabin lights go down: small pinpricks of light appear in an indigo background, creating a starry night-time "sky''.

All this is, of course, by design. "We wanted to take a fresh look at long-haul,'' Virgin Blue's Liz Savage told me in a telephone interview on my recent visit to Sydney and Cairns. "What really makes a difference is the service quality,'' said Savage, the airline's group executive commercial. "We have a very different mindset. We're a bit more up-to-date, a bit more light-hearted, as well.''

As a later entrant into the market, Virgin Blue and V Australia strive to differentiate themselves from the 800-pound gorilla in that market, Qantas. Qantas is itself a high-quality airline and it has a decades-long head start. In Australia's continental domestic market, Qantas has two-thirds of the market, to Virgin Blue's one-third, said Savage, speaking from Brisbane, where Virgin Blue Group of Airlines has its headquarters. Still, that's good for a young company and is reflected in what Savage says are 90 percent domestic load factors.

Like all airlines, Virgin saves its pampering for high-yield, business-class fliers and long-haul intercontinental service. I flew Virgin Blue between Cairns and Sydney, where the product is more than respectable, though not posh. There is not much pitch - airline-speak for legroom - and food is offered for sale, as it is on virtually all U.S. domestic carriers in economy class.

This reflects Virgin Blue's roots as a domestic, low-cost carrrier targeting fare-conscious leisure travelers. It is now going after more free-spending business travelers - and this is especially true on international routes with fledgling V Australia.

"We are very successful in small- and-medium-sized markets,'' Savage says of the domestic operation. "Virgin Blue was an LCC; now, we're focusing on the corporate market.''

Like other Virgin-branded airlines around the world, Virgin Blue/V Australia is staying outside the three big global airline alliances and striking bilateral deals. Its major new initiative is with Abu Dhabi's Etihad Airways and the Aussie company is moving closer to Air New Zealand. V Australia last month launched service between Sydney and Abu Dhabi, where it is establishing an international hub, giving it greater access to the burgeoning Middle East aviation market and to Europe. Savage praises Etihad's high-end product as a good fit for V Australia. Having flown with both airlines, I agree.

Both have exceptional customer service, for one thing.

"We don't call our customers 'passengers,'' Savage says, "we call them 'guests.' '' Of course, so do some other airlines, and even government departments in some countries have taken to calling - sorry, 'rebranding' - members of the public "customers.'' More important than branding in this instance is employee training, and both V Australia and Etihad have tuned-in, attentive staffs that seem to know what you want before you realize you want it. That in itself helps both carriers stand out - although their young fleets don't hurt, either.

Meanwhile according to Savage, the company will seek more international bilateral deals even as it tightens its relationship with Etihad. Coordinated schedules, shared lounges and, eventually, shared frequent-flier miles will enable travelers "to earn and burn,'' Savage says.

Like other airlines, Virgin is being hurt by the cascading crises that have hit the Asia Pacific region this year: A cyclone in Queensland followed by flooding, the earthquake in Christchurch, New Zealand and the triple whammy of earthquake, tsunami and radiation leaks in Japan. That's not to mention the rising cost of oil, driven in part by the fighting in Libya. Like its competitors, Virgin Blue is hedging fuel prices, adding surcharges and raising fares.

Sensitive to the situation, Savage expresses tempered optimism. Of the rains that brought mud and floods to Virgin's hometown of Brisbane, Savage remarks "I don't want to underplay it,'' adding that, as fast as they can, people and companies are getting back to normal. "Queensland is 98 to 99 percent open for business,'' she says. "The message is "Come and enjoy.' ''

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