It wasn’t the foreboding, the portentous headlines or the challenges he knew were to follow that caused Shai Weiss to cut short a pre-Covid trip to the US – it was the moment he was told some of his Virgin Atlantic crew were nervous about flying to China.
"That grabbed my attention," Weiss admits. It’s now late-March 2021, shortly before the government’s Global Travel Taskforce is due to report the findings of its review of how international travel can be restarted safely. I ask Weiss to recall the onset of Covid; his account is understandably vivid. "People like dates," he says. "So I’m going back 419 days to 1 February 2020 when we first suspended flights to Shanghai.
"Most of the dates that followed came at an unbelievable price; they’re well known to me now, and I’ll never forget them. We’ve lost around 4,500 jobs, 45% of the company. We understood saving Virgin Atlantic, and as many jobs as we could, was the only thing that mattered. We’ve obsessed over that for the past 419 days."
Controversially, at least at the time, says Weiss, Virgin asked staff to take four weeks’ unpaid leave. "It was a bit like an election," he muses. "There I was telling people the world was about to become very difficult, and that I needed their support; 99% of our people volunteered. If there’s one thing that will be with me for ever, it was that feeling of being humbled by the team."
He remembers in late-March reading "from start to finish" the paper by epidemiologist and former government advisor Neil Ferguson, which forecast 250,000 UK Covid deaths if the government didn’t lockdown immediately. "I didn’t understand all the ins and outs of the science, but I understood the devastating impact he expected," Weiss recalls.
On 5 May, Virgin Atlantic announced it would be dramatically reducing its workforce, retiring its B747s and A340s, suspending operations at Gatwick, and cutting all unnecessary costs. To date, Weiss has been insistent "the bad stuff" would always come from him; 5 May was no different. Thousands joined the call. "They heard it in my own voice," he recalls.
"Shaky, emotional, scared and apprehensive, but resolute. We didn’t have the answers, procedures or knowledge, but we did have the tremendous spirit of Virgin Atlantic. Faced with the same reality, a different spirit would not have carried us through this."
A year later, Weiss sets store by science in the form of several safe, highly-effective Covid-19 vaccines, and increasingly accurate testing. In its representations to the government’s Global Travel Taskforce, Virgin has advocated a risk-based framework for a restart of international, underpinned by vaccination, testing, genomic sequencing and better treatment.
It has also recently announced trials of Iata’s Travel Pass and TrustAssure to verify travel health data. "Testing’s going to be with us for some time for variants and sequencing," Weiss cautions. "I also think if states promote hassle-free travel for vaccinated people, we need to ensure there’s a safe repository of information."
He alludes to existing checks for yellow fever. "To do that [for Covid] will be profoundly difficult," he says. "So we should use technology to help. Does all this need to done for 17 May? I don’t think that’s realistic. It will be a long time before the entire world is vaccinated. But we believe we have the conditions to open the skies between certain countries from 17 May."
Weiss freely acknowledges Covid has facilitated, and accelerated, change at Virgin Atlantic; it has quit Gatwick and capitalised on the availability of slots at Heathrow. "I hope, and expect, a case will emerge for us to return to Gatwick," says Weiss. "But I don’t expect it in the next 18 months – minimum."
He says greater UK connectivity at Gatwick rather than point-to-point flying would strengthen that case, highlighting how efforts to plug gaps left by Flybe – particularly by joint venture partner Air France-KLM – could serve as regional feed for Virgin there, and elsewhere.
Weiss doesn’t seek to play down Virgin’s role in Flybe’s demise; the Virgin-led Connect Airways coalition acquired Flybe in early 2019, and announced in October the same year it would be rebranded Virgin Connect; there was barely time to prise open the tins of scarlet paint – Flybe collapsed in February 2020, going the way of Little Red.
"We had to choose between supporting Flybe or Virgin Atlantic," says Weiss. "But the case for connectivity under the Virgin name or a Virgin-affiliated name is still there, although its completely off the table for now. We must repair our balance sheet, return to profitability and repay our debts. But we will be cooperating more on the feed network."
Elsewhere, the airline has trimmed its network, although Weiss insists most existing routes will survive. He welcomes competition from JetBlue on transatlantic routes from Heathrow, and from Aer Lingus at Manchester where was previously up against Thomas Cook. More activity at Glasgow is possible too; seasonal operations will continue out of Belfast. "If there is demand to serve passengers in the north, we will, as we have for many years."
Behind the scenes, Virgin Atlantic and Virgin Holidays have been knitted together to create Virgin Atlantic Holidays. "In our minds, these were two separate entities, but to consumers, there was hardly a difference," Weiss explains. "Have we rebranded the retail estate? No. We need to think about that, but our people are aligned around one brand that unites us all."
Virgin is a member of the government’s Jet Zero Council, and has committed to net-zero flying by 2050. Sustainable aviation fuel (SAF) will be key to this says Weiss; he hopes Virgin’s SAF partner, LanzaTech, will look to build a plant in the UK by 2025. "Aviation will be using fuel for the next decade or two," he warns, calling on government to create the economic and commercial environment to allow SAFs to come to the fore.
"No company can solve this alone," he observes. "There’s so much knowledge here in the UK, if we’re looking for things where the UK can have a leadership position in a post-Brexit world, sustainability has to be one.
"There’s no doubt aviation has a PR issue with sustainability. But I don’t believe in going back. Curtailing demand would be easier, but wrong. We need commitments, collaboration and strong objectives. This is not nice-to-do, but a must-do. And I think consumers should, and will, discriminate – especially younger people."
With Iata and others forecasting a return to 2019 levels of demand by 2023/24, Weiss’s focus is shorter-term. "If we get through the next six to 18 months, 2023/24 will take care of themselves," he says confidently. "My worry is the next six months and the return of international travel. The pent-up demand will be tremendous."
Despite travel being forced into reverse, Weiss only has eyes for what’s ahead. "We must get back to our best, we must innovate, we must improve," he says.
"We have to measure satisfaction not just with the service in the airport and while onboard, it must cover the entire journey. We should refine our digital retail model so it is more friendly, easier to use and gives more options. But in the core, we are a full-service carrier, led by our amazing people. I think we have a good opportunity to emerge in a different way.
"Our people are our magic sauce, our secret formula. That’s not going to change. I’m saying day-in, day-out to our people, ‘let 2021 be the new 1984’."
Virgin Atlantic is headline sponsor of the Travel Industry Awards 2021 by TTG. Visit thetravelindustryawards.com for details.
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