Virgin Atlantic has just revealed its latest social space found on the final five A350’s that will be delivered for the carrier. Instead of ‘The Loft’ – the social space found on its first wave of A350’s – the last few Airbus aircraft to be delivered have been configured for the carrier’s leisure routes. 

This isn’t new to airlines. Competitor British Airways and Virgin Atlantic in the past have used different configurations to reflect the higher proportion of economy travellers to sunshine destinations. Because the carrier will feature a more intimate cabin of just 16 Upper Class suites, its usual ‘Door 2’ entry way and galley area no longer plays a suitable location for Virgin’s signature social space, meaning the airline has had to think differently. 

Enter the ‘Booth’ designed in collaboration with Factorydesign. It’s certainly innovative, featuring two seats, two large touchscreen TVs and a social table – but there’s something about it that leaves us a little confused. While details of its use are sparse for now, it is likely it could become a revenue generator, as a ‘hired space’ perhaps for those wanting a meeting, or dinner ‘a-deux’ but the table is a little on the small side for such an event. 

While it does look great and the team both at Virgin and Factorydesign have done a great job in designing such a small space that most likely fulfils the brief, I take a more controversial look at why this (and the Loft) could be a white elephant of the fleet.

Brand Image & Marketing 

Virgin Atlantic, now in its mid 30’s has riffed off the Virgin Records label since its inception. Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you will have seen route launch images with Richard Branson as anything from Elvis to a Mariachi band member. He’s the sheer epitome of Entertainment. It’s that same image that has infused into Virgin Atlantic over the years, from having a Virgin Atlantic box at the O2 arena to Vera, its entertainment channel and magazine that oozes movie and music culture. The nightlife and bar culture has gone hand-in-hand with entertainment for years. Just look at Virgin Voyages, who have actually embraced this happy marriage. 

You may also remember James Bond sipping Vesper martinis at the Upper Class bar and for those fortunate enough to have flown with them over a decade ago, the beauticians and massage therapists that flew with the crew, giving passengers anything from a neck and shoulder rub to a manicure. Simply put, what Virgin Atlantic means to many can be summed up as ‘fun’.

While industry buzz words like ‘wellness and sustainability’ fill the offices of passenger experience departments of airlines across the world, it’s easy to get caught up in a movement and forget the core purpose of your brand’s existence. Fundamentally, the inflight bar, which is synonymous with Virgin Atlantic – and a USP for just a handful of airlines – should remain to solidify its competitive edge against larger rival British Airways. 

The most recent advertising campaign (now two years old) positions Virgin Atlantic as a pseudo-party in the skies and highlights the carrier’s ambition to celebrate the joy of travel. It’s the reason why Virgin have still won over travellers even when their price point is sometimes higher. This may be contentious, but I believe social spaces such as The Loft and The Booth on Virgin Atlantic’s A350s do little to delight or surprise travellers – but that’s a brand strategy issue. 

The layout

The spaces also seemingly put the cabin crew – another of Virgin Atlantic’s strengths – second fiddle in the passenger experience. Crew were able to hold court at the inflight bar, put a face, story and a smile to a journey. Everything about Virgin’s A350 Upper Class suite has been designed to shun away the crew. Previously the seats faced the aisle, forcing engagement and eye contact with them, creating a social raport. The new suites are more private, with higher walls, and window seats facing away from the aisle. Now crew are hidden behind the Loft. Out of sight, out of mind. 

It’s not clear where ‘The Booth’ will be situated (as the mock-ups shown have a curved wall, suggesting it might not be situated in the middle of the cabin). However, we believe it will most likely be by the First Left door (Door L1), as this is usually where one of the toilets are situated. With just 16 seats, there’s an argument that you’d only need 2 instead of the three at the front of the existing A350s, and the triangular wedge on one of the seats in the booth seem to reflect the footwell of a potential Upper Class suite – so it’s a logical conclusion to make.  

The customer

The routes that these specifically configured A350’s will fly will mainly be leisure routes. Expect Caribbean and Orlando to top the list here. These are low-business routes, and high leisure routes. As such the need for privacy, or a meeting room are minimal. Most Upper Class passengers on this route will be affluent leisure passengers who may have saved or looked forward to a trip for months. 

A ‘Booth’ which is too small to utilise as a real dining area and can only be used by two people at a time will not strike a chord with passengers, and as such will be underused and a waste of real estate for the airline. Historically this would have been a bar, or a treatment area for massages, instead it’s a place – much like the Loft – which hasn’t got a clear purpose for passengers, and as such will be ignored. As for revenue generation, it could only be a minimal return to the carrier.

Realistically this should still have been a bar. Perhaps not the all-singing all-dancing ones from days gone by, but a walk-up bar, a social area to interact with the crew. Leisure routes above all others are fun, they are a flight to relax, switch off, grab a drink and start the holiday at the airport. Upper Class Suites which position every passenger away from each other don’t even reflect the obvious couples’ market that will also dominate such routes.

China Airlines has come up with a novel solution to smaller bar spaces. Creating an area that is social enough, but without seats to ensure that people can get up, stretch the legs, have a quick chat with fellow passengers or crew, and return to the safety of their seats. By removing seats, you also change the dynamics, quietening the space and minimising the intrusion on resting guests in the cabin. 

In conclusion

This isn’t the designers fault, I believe it’s the case of the wrong brief. Innovation is great, and shouldn’t be discouraged, but it needs to solve a real issue or problem. Virgin really needs to remember their passengers. Wellness (and therefore the removal of bars) may be an increasing trend which Virgin Atlantic is trying to respond to (just look at the unusual choice of Peloton bikes in the lounge), but it’s not why people select Virgin above British Airways. By dulling down Its USP, its brand image and its joie de vivre the carrier is gradually becoming closer and closer to its competitors – Virgin usually goes against the grain and bucks the trends.

I caveat this all by stating I love the brand and a big ambassador for Virgin as a loyal customer, and being lucky enough to have travelled with them more than 50 times over the past decade or so and have seen some striking, wonderful innovations come and go with the carrier. But it’s clear that more than ever, today Virgin needs a clear direction, and a clear, loud, proud tone of voice that translates in to its product. It’s easy in a crisis to curb expenditure and brace for a storm, but Virgin Atlantic historically always defied these moments and rose up stronger. They only need to look at sister brand Virgin Voyages to see how to set a tone, define a brand and celebrate the differences that Virgin’s group image still stands for.

Posted by:Jonny Clark

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