Virgin Australia’s new CEO Hrdlicka commits to Business, lounges as re-launch takes off

by James Wilkinson

Virgin Australia’s new CEO and Managing Director, Jayne Hrdlicka, has unveiled her new direction for the airline, with the carrier set to keep Business class and key lounges in a new mid-market push.

Hrdlicka unveiled the future plans for the carrier on her first day on the job this week (Nov 18), and revealed it included retaining core lounges and “reimagining” the lounge experience, retaining three choices of seating (Business, Economy X and Economy), leveraging new technology for a simplified check-in and airport experience, and importantly, cheaper airfares.

She said the plan would see the carrier – the first major Australian airline in history to exit voluntary administration – compete in its “mid-market heartland for guests who want a more premium experience at an affordable and competitive price”.

Hrdlicka said while Virgin Australia will serve all segments of the market, it will “build its proposition around its long-standing and most loyal guests, which include price conscious corporate travellers, small to medium businesses, premium leisure travellers and holidaymakers”.

She has committed to the airline retaining a domestic market share of roughly one third by operating a comprehensive network of domestic and regional destinations; re-opening lounges across the country as travel demand resumes and debuting a new Adelaide space in early 2021; creating a more accessible Business Class offering; the launch of new self-service and assisted check-in and baggage drop facilities; the debut of an updated and more integrated Virgin Australia app; and a commitment to regional Australia including the restructuring of Virgin Australia Regional Airlines to become a more sustainable and profitable business following a comprehensive business review.

“Virgin Australia is an airline built on a 20-year history of exceptional customer service and delivering a great experience for millions of Australians,” Hrdlicka said. “Today, we exit voluntary administration with a renewed sense of who we are and who we are here to serve.

“It’s a privilege to join Virgin Australia as CEO at such an important moment, and I’ve spent the past few weeks meeting and listening to our team and hearing their ideas.

“I’m impressed with their understanding of and passion for our guests and look forward to their continued input as we work to refine our plans and define our future together.

“The travel environment is changing and so are our customers’ preferences. We know that leisure travellers, small and medium businesses, and many corporates are now emerging from COVID-19 wanting better value.

“They are hungry for flexibility and choice, a trusted brand that resonates with their values, and great prices, along with the premium features they value most.

“Today, we’ve announced a plan that will ultimately give our customers what they value without the big price tag: premium lounges, a new and fresh retail offering onboard, a choice of cabins, better digital technology and a more streamlined check-in experience.

“We will also continue to deliver our award-winning service, strong network of destinations, an award-winning frequent flyer program and a safe and reliable operation.

“Australia already has a low-cost-carrier and a traditional full-service airline, and we won’t be either. Virgin Australia will be a mid-market carrier appealing to customers who are after a great value airfare and better service.

“We will continue to evolve our offering for our customers based on data and feedback, but the Virgin Australia experience millions of travellers know and love is here to stay.

“We emerge today stronger, more competitive, and ready to face the challenges ahead. We removed an enormous amount of complexity from our business, greatly improved our cost base, and have an extraordinary team on the ground and in the air to deliver our new plan.

“We are more resilient than ever and have the backing of Bain Capital who are deeply invested in seeing us succeed over the long term.

“As we have seen with the recent issues with South Australia, the travel market remains uncertain.We are however seeing some positive signs of recovery.

“Borders are beginning to open and a potential vaccine is on the way. We expect continued volatility, but as demand recovers, we’ll achieve a market share consistent with our pre-COVID position and continue to invest in, and grow, the fleet in line with increases in demand.

“Shaping our future will be a collaborative effort across the Virgin Australia Group and I’m thrilled to see the genuine excitement from our people about the future of their airline,” Hrdlicka said.

She said while Virgin Australia will retain its much-loved Business Class seats and exceptional service provided by its cabin crew, it will complete an end-to-end review of the Business Class offering before relaunching it in 2021.

The review, done in collaboration with the airline’s crew, will ensure better alignment to guests’ needs, while maintaining the elements they love, according to Hrdlicka.

Changes to Economy are also set to be introduced, with a new, fresh “buy onboard menu” set to replace the existing snack early next year, and customers will continue to be offered complimentary tea, coffee and water.

In-flight WiFi and Inflight Entertainment remains under review and more details will be announced in 2021, she said.

On the Lounge front, venues in Melbourne, Sydney, Brisbane, Adelaide, Perth and the Gold Coast will remain in the business, as will the Premium Entry feature.

No decision has been made on the Canberra Lounge, however, due to low visitation, the Darwin, Cairns and Mackay lounges will close, according to the airline.

Initially, Virgin says the lounges will offer guests an interim food and beverage menu, which will be reviewed as the lounge network gradually re-opens and passenger volumes return.

The offering will adhere to COVID-safe protocols and will include fresh and pre-made food, including sweet and savoury snacks, sandwiches and fruit, along with barista-made coffee, juices and premium sparkling, wine and beer, according to the airline.

The recently-built Adelaide Lounge will open in the first quarter of 2021, according to the company, and the Adelaide Lounge is a prototype of the Virgin Australia Lounge of the future and will provide customers with an “experience and aesthetic more aligned to the Virgin brand they know and love”, the carrier says.

Amongst other changes, a new, state-of-the-art self-service and assisted check-in facilities will open across major airports by December 2021, simplifying the airport experience and leveraging new technology.

The hybrid check-in facilities, which currently feature in Melbourne and Perth, will allow Virgin Australia to streamline customer flow through the airports, substantially reducing queue wait times, and making travel easy and seamless for passengers.

The facilities, a mix of kiosks and assisted check-in counters, mean Guest Services agents can come out from behind a desk and provide a more concierge-style service for passengers.

Technology will play a key role in the airline’s evolution according to the carrier and the Virgin Australia mobile app will be enhanced through 2021, creating a more integrated experience for travellers and Velocity Frequent Flyer members.