Virgin sheds Atlantic cold; warms up to local hues

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With the inevitable price rise in the airline sector and certain companies facing the heat, Virgin Atlantic has come up with out of the box offerings to attract its Indian customers. Various student offers, flights from Mumbai and the luxury lounge in the new A330 connecting Delhi and London, with capabilities of in-flight mobile calling and airside recording studio at Heathrow, are a few offerings Virgin Atlantic puts forth for its passengers.

According to a report by ICRA, While the domestic airlines have not been able to attract foreign investors (up to 49 per cent FDI is allowed, though foreign airlines are currently not allowed any stake), foreign airlines may be interested in taking strategic stakes due to their deeper business understanding, longer investment horizons and overall longer term commitment towards the global aviation industry. Healthy passenger traffic growth on account of favourable demographics, rising disposable incomes and low air travel penetration could attract long-term strategic investments in the sector. As a matter of fact, the industry has grown at a 16 per cent CAGR in passenger traffic terms over the past decade. This leaves immense scope for the growth of international airlines in the country.

Going local
In a bid to appeal to its Indian TG, the global airline is adding an Indian flavour to most of its offerings including food and in-flight entertainment. Recently, it launched an Upper Class suite on the Delhi- London route, with a new addition of the longest on board bar spanning approximately 8.8 feet. The company invited the public to share their ideas about a cocktail recipe that can be consumed 37,000 feet above the ground while flying. According to Virgin Atlantic’s General Manager India, Stephen King, the airlines received more than 200 innovative recipes and the winning cocktail is named ‘the supernova’. “The cocktail will be served at our exclusive on board bar in the A330,” he adds.

Stephen King, General Manager India, Virgin Atlantic

Stephen King, General Manager India, Virgin Atlantic

Besides the cocktail, the flight also serves Indian Mughlai food and also offers its passengers on board Indian movies.  In addition, Virgin Atlantic is also planning to engage its audience with on ground as well as on board with celebration gifts, competitions, special desserts and traditionally dressed staff on Indian national holidays and festive days.

Explaining the concept of taking localised initiatives, King says that to attract Indian passengers Virgin Atlantic has to offer something special to meet their tastes and requirements through constant engagement at all consumer touch-points. “We try to stay close to our existing and potential consumers. Understanding that Indian consumers like to carry more baggage when traveling long haul, we took the decision to increase our ‘Economy’ baggage allowance to two pieces of 23 kgs each to London. This was an innovative move and we are still the only airline that offers 46 kgs baggage allowance to London. Such constant gestures ensure customers prefer us, have a strong affinity and love the brand,” appends King.

Budgeted move
According to Virgin Atlantic, the company has been flying from Delhi since more than 12 years. King adds that Virgin has developed a strong relationship with travel and trade and built up partnerships over the years. “Beyond our consumer touch points and true to our brand spirit we have done some unique advertising and PR activities. With perhaps the lowest advertising budget, we have ensured our advertising campaigns are well aimed at a on the predefined target audience and we use strategic placements for our stunning ads rather than large and expensive formats,” says King.

Last year, Virgin Atlantic tried a different technique to make its presence felt.  “An elevator perhaps is the only place, if compared to a hoarding or newspaper ad, is where a consumer stands for at least for 20 seconds doing nothing,” says King.  The service focused at creatives in shopping malls and also tried to target corporate travelers by tapping their buildings. The airlines branded the elevators that it believed its potential passengers boarded at least twice every day, therefore making the brand visible. “The cost was perhaps as much as two insertions in a newspaper but the exposure and recollection worked much better,” adds King.

In India, Virgin Atlantic, like most airlines designs an annual offer supporting students traveling abroad for further studies. A similar offer was in the air, on radio for British Airways also. But what Virgin did differently was that it commissioned a survey focusing on what students like to take with them when flying abroad and the results varied from mangoes to Maggi and from aloo bhujia to pressure cookers.

More on board
The airside recording studio at Heathrow airport caters to Indian and global artists alike. The studio vaunts professional grade equipment that provides a unique environment for artists to do some last minute editing. Once finished, the tracks can be emailed or uploaded to a record company or broadcaster directly from the Clubhouse.  Apart from music, all of the A330 aircrafts of Virgin Atlantic have the AeroMobile system installed. Passengers can make and receive phone calls and send texts from their own mobile phones.

“Our business is very much focused on India as one of the fastest and most vibrant economies of the world and we are very excited about our future here,” says King. According to him Delhi remains one of our most important routes with passengers travelling to the UK and the US. Since Virgin Atlantic has seen more passengers travelling to New York, it is planning to launch an additional flight from London to New York JFK specifically to connect to the Delhi London flight.

Virgin Atlantic will be introducing its new A330 aircraft on the route, which boasts of the new Upper Class cabin and  touch screen in-flight entertainment.  In October it is also going to launch its flights from Mumbai. “We’re a long haul airline and we’ve identified real potential in India and Mumbai particularly to seamlessly take passengers not only to London but also to major US cities. From October, our daily Mumbai London flight will offer brilliant same day connections to New York, Boston, Washington and Miami,” King adds.

According to Virgin Atlantic, it carried, in the first half of 2012, 32 per cent of all the economy passengers travelling to the US in this route. King says that, Virgin is seeing that the passengers prefer its service via London over United Airlines’ direct flight. “Though the Delhi-London route is one of the most competitive in the world we have a strong market share and are proud that Indian passengers choose Virgin again and again.  After us, Air India has the second biggest share.”

As per DGCA data, foreign carriers already enjoy 65 per cent market share in international traffic and hence, 27 per cent of total passenger traffic (domestic + international).

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