Every minute of the day, there are 35 planes in the air, with over 10,000 passengers, 400 crew, and 70 pilots, he is saddled with the all-important and the daunting task of being responsible for their health, safety, and security. With 18 years of operations in Nigeria, Chief Executive Officer, Virgin Atlantic, Mr. Shai Weiss, in his first and historic official visit to Nigeria, speaks with Adedayo Adejobi on his airline’s bid to introduce the new A350 aircraft, the airline’s joint venture with Delta, KLM and Air France, expansion plans, challenges of running the airline, the essence of his visit and his experience of Nigeria
Being your first visit to Nigeria, how does it feel being in Nigeria?
It is my first time in Nigeria, but not my first time to Africa. This is my first year as CEO coming to an end in January. I promised myself that I would visit every station in the first year and I left the best for last, which is Lagos Nigeria. I’ve stood in traffic; I’ve had good food, amazing conversations with the Nigerian people and so I’m very happy.
How was the traffic?
The honest truth is that it’s been quite bad in some parts, but we also travelled by night so that we can get ahead by the traffic. I think what I’ve learnt is that just as much as the United Kingdom talk about the weather, you talk about the traffic and they are both pretty bad.
Tell us about your experience in Nigeria
It’s a very short visit, but I promise to be back for a big party in 2020, hopefully. I’m here to, first of all, visit our team, visit our partners, visit our customers and then to announce the fact that we would be flying our best new plane, the new A350 from August next year which is 30 per cent more efficient from a fuel perspective and allows our people to shine and it’s just an unbelievable product. One of the most important things is it’s across premium, economy and upper class. The screen in economy in the A350 is larger than our current upper-class screen. We have a loft where people can congregate and work. We have local music and we are going to bring more content from Nollywood. And so there is a lot of things to be excited about commencing in August.
Your loft is replacing the very popular bar. What’s informed that?
We always want to innovate and continue with thinking about the future and our passengers. And what our customers have told us is that the bar is really fun, but first of all when there is turbulence they have to go back to their seats. The new upper-class loft allows people to seat more six people at a time, have a drink, hold meetings, be unto a presentation to a screen with Wi-Fi and/or Bluetooth. It’s quite a unique product which is just to show that we continue to innovate a people expect from us at Virgin Atlantic.
Why do you think your airline is the preferred airline in Nigeria to London?
We believe that there is a tremendous preference for Virgin Atlantic not just to Lagos, but through the entire network. Our vision is to become the most loved travel company. A lot of companies wouldn’t even dare to ask or think of such an opportunity. For us it’s a way to show that our people provide the best service on board. And of course we have the best product. We have the 787s, the A350; we announced buying the A339 at the Paris air show. By 2024, our average age of a fleet would be 5.3, which would be the youngest fleet in the sky. But everything starts and ends with our people; they are the magic sauce, the thing that makes us unique.
How many aircrafts do you intend to take delivery of?
About 12 A350’s are new. We already have seventeen 787s, the A339, the next generation, which starts in 2021. We have ordered 14 and we have an option to buy six more. So imagine 2024 with 20 A339s, 12 A350s and 7 -1787 replacing the older and quite iconic 747.
You are taking out the iconic 747?
We are just like everybody else. We don’t have the 747 for 50 years, but they are 50 years of service. They are fantastic airplanes and people love them, so do we. But from an environmental perspective, replacing a four-engine aircraft with a two-engine is a necessity, if you are a good custodian of the environment, which we are. The reduction of fuel between four engines and two engines is 30 per cent reduction. And the noise is 50 per cent less. So, it’s done a great service, but I think they deserve a honourary pension and I’m glad we’ll put them somewhere.
Aside bringing the A350 to this route, what are other things you have in the works to sustain the Nigerian customers?
This is a fantastic route for Virgin Atlantic, and If you want to know how committed we are to Nigeria, look no further than the last three to four years ago, when there were some problems, when the oil was low and the currency was hard to get out of, we struck with Lagos. It was easy to say it’s not going to work out and it’s difficult. Not only are we here, we are bringing out the best plane with our best people, increasing the number of seats by 10 per cent. We know that this is such an important service that we provide for businesses, families and leisure customers in Lagos, flying back home or to meet their family in London, and of course to do business or connecting to the United States.
We know a lot of people like to fly to other places from London, and so we’ve announced that we’ll be flying to Sao Paolo. We’ve started flying on the 25th of September to Tel Aviv in the holy land and Mumbai. So, flying Virgin Atlantic into London allows for connectivity on our services throughout the world.
What is behind the alliance with Delta?
Indeed, we celebrated five years of the joint venture with Delta. Delta owns 49 percent of Virgin Atlantic and more importantly we have a partnership across the Atlantic that allows us access to provide a more coordinated schedule, more coordinated pricing and opportunity for customers to use their loyalty programmes on both Virgin and Delta. Air France and KLM are also joining this alliance. We just received approval on the 29th November and it will go live in the beginning of the year 2020.
When you started services in Nigeria 18 years ago, did you ever imagine that the route was going to be so successful?
I wasn’t here 18 years ago. I’ve been with Virgin Atlantic for 6 years and the Virgin brand for 15 years. I think when you start a route you always hope that it’s providing service, useful to an economy, families, hospitality and leisure travelers. We felt good about it, but if you look at the last 20 years in Nigeria, I think Nigeria has added 70 million people. It is now three times the size of the population of the UK. I think we are pleased, but the future is even brighter.
The airline has been flying to Lagos in the last 18 years, what incentive do you have for your loyal customers?
First of all, we say thank you to our loyal customers both business and leisure. We’ve provided a service for 18 years and here’s to the next 18 years with continued innovation, continued respect for the business they provide us and for the fact that they love Virgin Atlantic. We certainly love them.
Could tell us about the expansion going on in Virgin Atlantic?
The expansion is on-going. We have returned to growth and we added three new routes in 2019. London- Tel Aviv started in September, Mumbai started in November and Sao Paolo will start in March next year, Boston- Gatwick will be flown by Delta and New York- Gatwick would be flown by Virgin Atlantic in January 2020. We have a greater ambition to find places we can provide unique service and are appreciated. We are glad we are growing, and we grow, it feels good.
Over the years, your brand has been quite off the radar, consistently delivering value to date. How profitable is Virgin Atlantic?
Virgin Atlantic has been profitable, but this year, we are losing a lot more, but doing better than we expected. In 2020, we intend to break even and return to profitability in 2021. Profitability is important so we can invest more in our people and passengers.
What is it that makes your job different from what you thought it would be as the CEO of Virgin Atlantic?
The answer is pretty straight forward, but it’s daunting even when I say to myself, every minute of the day, there are 35 planes in the air, around 10,000 passengers, 400 crew, 70 pilots and I am responsible for their health, safety and security. We’ve had an absolutely great track record of doing that, but knowing this is a great responsibility that is always at the back of my mind.
How do you deal with competition?
Virgin Atlantic was built on the value of disruption and taking on the status quo. We are usually coming from behind so we thrive with the competition.
Talking about growth plan, where do you see Virgin Atlantic in the next five years?
One of the things we’ve launched in the UK in terms of our growth plan is to become the UK’s second flag carrier because Britain deserves better. There is a plan in Britain to grow the third runway, which will add 350 slots, thus allowing us to grow.
If the regime in which these slots is allocated is changed, and we believe it should be changed, so there will be more competition and more services. We said we will add 37 international routes, 12 domestic routes. We have launched a campaign because we can provide a better service if we are allocated those slots.