In October this year, Virgin Atlantic is making a much-awaited and long overdue comeback to Mumbai with its daily service between London Heathrow and Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj International Airport. The route will be operated on a Boeing 787-9 aircraft, with three classes offered. This flight will mark Virgin Atlantic’s second destination in India (it has been flying uninterrupted to Delhi for over 18 years).
How will this new flight benefit westbound passengers from Mumbai? We recently caught up with David Hodges, India country manager for Virgin Atlantic, who shed some light on the airline’s India strategy. “We already have a daily service to Heathrow from Delhi. We are happy to add Mumbai back to our network. The first flight is on October 27. It is perfectly timed to land at London Heathrow early in the morning and then connect to USA flights. We have a significant network to the east and west coasts, particularly with our partner Delta. Even for travel within the USA, our passengers can use our partner Delta’s network.”
Is the focus, then, largely on transit passengers? Or is there a significant chunk of passengers that are UK-bound? “While there is a huge amount of connecting passengers, we also have large numbers of London-bound Indian passengers. It is a nice mix. In the US, the west coast like Los Angeles and San Francisco are very important for us.”
With Virgin’s reentry into the Mumbai skies, the next obvious question is if the airline jumped in to fill in the void left by its former partner Jet Airways. Hodges comments, “We had a very strong partnership with Jet Airways and we had expanded that. Working with Jet Airways also meant that we grew our presence in different Indian cities across time. Sadly, that is not the case anymore. Following the collapse of Jet Airways, we wanted to continue servicing our customers and we wanted to meet this sudden demand. In India, the truth is, no matter how many flights you start to the UK, you will never have enough.”
At an implicit level, there is a fit between the airline and the city — Mumbai being an entrepreneurial city, this matches well with Mr. Branson’s entrepreneurial philosophy of Virgin Atlantic.
How is this partnership with Delta working out for the airline? David Hodges adds, “The biggest benefit for us is that Delta’s 200 connections to the cities across the USA. This is very useful for Indian passengers. In addition we work with Air France and KLM, so the four of us can truly benefit from this metal-neutral profit-sharing joint venture.”
The flights to Mumbai will be in a three-class configuration — Upper Class, Premium and Economy. “Even within economy class, there are different product classes — light (people with no baggage, particularly useful for business travellers), classic and delight (extra legroom and priority check-in). There is a huge potential for premium class travellers on a sector like Mumbai-London. Indian travellers are extremely discerning. But from a marketing standpoint, we are targeting all three classes,” says Hodges.
Our final question to the Virgin Atlantic team is, why is Mumbai so important to the airline’s expansion? How is it going to pan out in the future.
An optimistic Hodges responds that Mumbai has always received Virgin well. “Our brand image corresponded well to the overall philosophy of Mumbai, with its entertainment industry and all. People really appreciated our inflight bar, our amenities, our lounge at Heathrow. We’re only going to add to it. Our newest aircraft, the A350 will come to us later this year. This will have a new onboard experience, a lounge, great entertainment systems. Our customers from India will be able to experience that surely in the future.
Virgin Atlantic’s B787-9 service is scheduled for an October 27 launch. It will leave Mumbai at 0255 and arrive into London at 0735. On the return, it will leave Heathrow at 1015 and arrive in Mumbai at 0040.