Bet­ting on Africa

Business Traveller (Africa) - - Q&A - Oliver ‘Oli’ By­ers Se­nior Vi­cePres­i­dent, Global Sales & Customer Loy­alty: Vir­gin At­lantic

Africa is a key mar­ket for Vir­gin At­lantic, which has been fly­ing to the con­ti­nent for over 20 years. In fact, its Lon­don-Johannesburg route has been one of the most prof­itable and suc­cess­ful for a while, which is one of the rea­sons it’s added a sec­ond daily flight to its sched­ule. Oli By­ers, Se­nior Vice-Pres­i­dent, Global Sales & Customer Loy­alty at Vir­gin At­lantic, gave ed­i­tor Dy­lan Rogers of few min­utes of his time on a re­cent trip to South Africa. Q: Was the de­ci­sion by South African Air­ways to stop fly­ing to Lon­don the rea­son be­hind the launch of Vir­gin At­lantic’s sec­ond daily flight to Johannesburg?

A: It cer­tainly was a fac­tor. We are al­ways on the look­out for op­por­tu­ni­ties. Johannesburg is one of our most prof­itable markets, due in large part to the South African mar­ket, which put it at the top of the list of places we could fly into more of­ten. The move by SAA left a gap in the mar­ket and we moved very quickly to fill it.

Q: How is the Nige­rian mar­ket per­form­ing?

A: Nige­ria as a coun­try has been through a re­ally tough time re­cently, par­tic­u­larly from an eco­nomic per­spec­tive given its reliance on oil. How­ever, it's a strate­gic mar­ket for us; we wanted to re­main con­sis­tent and were proac­tive in man­ag­ing the sit­u­a­tion, so we were able to come through it. We were ac­tu­ally quite in­no­va­tive in the way we tried to sell in that mar­ket. Not just to hold a strate­gic po­si­tion, but also to work for the peo­ple there. And now that the coun­try is in a bet­ter po­si­tion, so are we; the mar­ket has re­bounded strongly. We plan to stay in Nige­ria for the fore­see­able fu­ture.

Q: Could we see an­other Nige­rian flight in the near fu­ture?

A: As a mar­ket, from a reg­u­la­tory per­spec­tive, Nige­ria has many re­straints in place that pre­vent us from grow­ing. The bi­lat­eral agree­ment does not al­low for an­other flight. How­ever, when we look at the fleet and air­craft op­por­tu­ni­ties, we may be able to add more ca­pac­ity. We don't have plans to do this right now, but it is some­thing we'll keep in mind.

Q: What changes has Vir­gin At­lantic made to its econ­omy class prod­uct?

A: Ear­lier this year we launched Econ­omy Lite and Econ­omy De­light, which sit along­side Econ­omy Clas­sic, be­cause we wanted to give cus­tomers more choice. The busi­ness case that we looked at back in 2016 was around cre­at­ing more choice for cus­tomers, be­cause we saw that they weren't buy­ing based solely on price. They were look­ing for ex­pe­ri­ences, and econ­omy as a sin­gle cabin didn't of­fer enough choice, so we wanted to cre­ate more op­por­tu­ni­ties for them. The de­ci­sion in­volved re­do­ing the econ­omy class cabin in many air­craft and we ac­tu­ally re­moved seats from the Boe­ing 787 to cre­ate more legroom for the Econ­omy De­light sec­tion. It's been a great suc­cess so far. While other car­ri­ers have added seats to their air­craft lay­out to den­sify flights at a lower cost, we've gone in the op­po­site di­rec­tion and cus­tomers have re­acted pos­i­tively. Econ­omy De­light presents great op­por­tu­ni­ties; no other air­line of­fers a prod­uct with ex­tra legroom and en­hanced ground ex­pe­ri­ence. It's a fan­tas­tic prod­uct for cost-con­scious busi­ness trav­ellers.

Q: Is the Econ­omy Lite prod­uct an ef­fort to com­pete with low­cost car­ri­ers?

A: Not re­ally, no. What the emer­gence of low-cost prod­ucts on long-haul flights has demon­strated quite clearly is that there are peo­ple who are will­ing to forgo some flex­i­bil­ity in favour of a lower price tag. It's not nec­es­sar­ily about want­ing to com­pete with those air­lines, but rather of­fer­ing cus­tomers the prod­ucts that they want to pur­chase. But it is im­por­tant to us that, re­gard­less of the ticket fare booked, pas­sen­gers get the Vir­gin ex­pe­ri­ence, which is not a low-cost one. Now, cus­tomers can buy the prod­uct they want (with the cor­re­spond­ing at­tributes) while re­ceiv­ing a high-value Vir­gin ex­pe­ri­ence with qual­ity on­board meals and friendly, help­ful crew mem­bers on board and on the ground.

Q: What are the ma­jor talk­ing points in the global air­line in­dus­try at the mo­ment?

A: In the UK, the fo­cus is on Brexit and the ef­fect this is hav­ing on the econ­omy. In the avi­a­tion sec­tor, Brexit def­i­nitely has con­se­quences in the Euro­pean mar­ket place, al­though not so much for Vir­gin At­lantic be­cause of the long-haul na­ture of our busi­ness. From a con­sumer de­mand per­spec­tive, we're look­ing at how Brexit im­pacts and peo­ple's will­ing­ness to travel, the con­fi­dence they have within the mar­ket place. We're mon­i­tor­ing this closely, be­cause out­bound leisure travel from the UK is a key fac­tor. Brexit also af­fects the foreign ex­change rate, which is of great in­ter­est to Vir­gin At­lantic be­cause of the dif­fer­ent ar­eas into which we op­er­ate. ■

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