Interview: Virgin Atlantic’s head of customer experience on the new Upper Class Suite

8 Oct 2019 by Tom Otley
Virgin Atlantic A350 Upper Class

Virgin Atlantic’s Vice President of Customer Experience, Daniel Kerzner, talks to Business Traveller about the design and development of the Upper Class Suite, which is debuting on the airline’s new A350s this year. 

Virgin Atlantic’s Vice President of Customer Experience, Daniel Kerzner

The new seat is very different from the existing one. Is this as a result of customer feedback?

Yes, customers told us they wanted it to be window-facing and so we did it with the aisle seat and the centre seats, which brings a lot of light into those centre seats from the window.

Being able to go directly into bed mode was also very important and it has become a standard in the industry. What the rest of Virgin Upper Class fleet gives you is one of the best bed experiences, so we wanted to make sure we still gave you the best sleep experience in the sky while allowing the seat to go straight into bed mode. So we have redesigned our bedding and have a fitted bottom sheet which wraps around the top of the seat and it has some extra padding in it.

It means you can set it up, say, before take-off in New York for a night flight, and when you’ve taken off you can recline and go straight into bed mode.

A lot of airlines don’t have a bottom sheet at all, and those that do often don’t have a padded one. And when you get up for breakfast in the morning you don’t have to flip the bed or take off that sheet. We want to give you the most time as possible in sleep mode.

So you’re catching up with the straight into bed options?

The industry goes direct into bed mode but doesn’t give you a bottom sheet, and when they do it’s not a good one, so it’s how everything works together.

Virgin Atlantic A350 Upper Class bed

Do you worry about people stealing the bottom sheet?

No, because it won’t fit their bed at home. But I’m worried about people stealing the cushions in the Loft and also the almond gold napkin rings.

What else is new?

The TV monitor is 18.5 inches, which is fairly normal for some of the newer products coming on the market, but it’s connected to the live tail cam, which gives a good view for passengers. And the screens, though they come out from the seat, can be kept out for take-off and landing because it’s been certified for that.

We also took the IFE one stage further, connecting your own device to the IFE, giving you the ability to control the screen. It is good in bed mode because you don’t have to get up and touch the screen. In the future you’ll be able to order things to your seat or to the Loft through the Bluetooth technology.

Virgin Atlantic A350-1000 IFE-screen

But it didn’t work on my flight. How robust is it with so many different devices needing to work?

We’re aiming for 100 per cent all of the time. If you are going to let people use their own device it needs to work for all devices, and it has to work for everyone.

There is very little storage in the new seat…

There’s a trade-off between storage and space and customers want the space. We are looking every day at the customer’s product. Stowage is one of the things we are looking at, but it has to be practical. The ones you’re talking about, are they big enough to put in an iPad or laptop? But it’s also how people are using their devices. Your phone is an extension of you, so it’s how you are using it.

The tray table is being replaced because it doesn’t allow enough room for passengers. Why did this mistake happen?

There are going to be things we look back on and we would want to change. The beauty for me is the empowerment we have to fail fast, to make mistakes, to push the envelope, to do things other people aren’t going and where we can, to do things better to make these changes quickly.

A lot of what you’re seeing on the aircraft was designed over a four-year period. The lockdown with Airbus is nine months before the plane gets delivered. When all of these kits of parts come together from suppliers all around the world you are bound to see things that you would do differently, and we have seen that, and we will change it.

To what?

The new table will be the same cartridge-like system, but it separates into two, so you could have one big one or a smaller one. It comes down as it does today, and then there’s a cartridge that is smaller, and it comes apart like a deck of cards into two parts. The depth of the whole tray table is smaller than the existing one.

I would say, also, that while the current tray doesn’t go forward and back, the seat does move backwards, so rather than the tray table moving, the seat moves, and I don’t think people understand that.

Virgin Atlantic tray-table-extended

How do these things happen, though?

There are tens of thousands of parts coming from around the world fitting together and we are 99.9 percent successful. Take the seating in the Loft where we are changing to leather from fabric. Leather will give a more comfortable feel, it will be more luxurious and it will be easier to keep it clean. We love the design and finish of the fabric, but changing it will give us something that is more durable. And that attention to detail is everywhere.

Take the panel in the Loft area as an example. The opaque panel is the biggest one on an aircraft. We did that to extend the feeling of space in that area, so instead of a solid panel it is opaque and the lighting from the cabin is visible on it and it makes for a stunning cabin. I also don’t think anyone could copy these things and be successful.

Everything you’re seeing on board is the start not the finish. To take another example, the table placemat we found was too slippery, so what you have today is an interim one and there’s another one coming, version 3. So we are constantly evolving. And those table mats are reusable, and they are more sustainable than fabric which has to be washed.

The bedding, there’s no single-use plastic in the bedding. Our competition has it in plastic bags, we got rid of that, and the paper napkin rings. Even our coffee onboard by Change Please is ethically and sustainably sourced. Fun fact: the beans are grown at altitude and they say that coffee grown at altitude tastes better at altitude, and it goes through our new coffee machines. Some are big details, some are small, but it’s all of that and the service customers get from our crew which gives us the right to win. I would love our competition to fly with us.

Read our review of the seat here: Virgin Atlantic A350-1000 Upper Class Suite


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