Virgin Blazes Ahead

When you look across the landscape of the travel industry, some companies seem stuck in the past when it comes to innovation...

By: Kenneth Shapiro

When you look across the landscape of the travel industry, some companies seem stuck in the past when it comes to innovation; others chase the latest trends trying to at least look creative even if they’re not; and then there those companies that are always shooting ahead of the field, seemingly without regard for the status quo. As you’ll read in this issue’s cover story, “Innovation in the Air” (page 10), the Virgin brands fit this last description to a tee.

For those cynics out there who think Virgin is nothing but gimmicks and clever marketing, keep in mind that this is an airline focused on innovation and enhancing the customer experience at a time when other airlines are busy a) fighting passenger’s rights; b) raising fees; and c) generally lowering the expectations of travelers. For Virgin, making flying fun again is not just lip service.

Take a recent flight I made from LAX to JFK on Virgin America. To begin with, not only was check-in easy, it was enjoyable. I actually conversed with the person manning the counter. It turns out he’s an interesting guy (a former B&B owner in Alaska). And, he did something unheard of in all of my travels — he turned his computer screen toward me so I could actually see what he was typing. He showed me how full the plane was and made me a part of the process of choosing my seat.

Once I got onboard, the experience continued. I could choose my own movie via an extensive entertainment menu in the seat back in front of me. I could also order a salad to be delivered to my seat anytime I wanted it. I could even enter an in-flight chat room with my fellow passengers to discuss our travels.

Does that sound like simply clever marketing?

Of course, the Virgin brand has several advantages over the legacy airlines in terms of structure and economics, but as you’ll read in the cover story, Sir Richard Branson saw the United States as ripe for Virgin because, as Virgin America CEO, C. David Cush says in the story, “the Virgin brand is famous for breathing new life into tired industries — and we think the public is responding.”

In this way, Virgin has turned the industry’s weakness to its advantage. If that’s not a lesson in entrepreneurial thinking, I don’t know what is.