Business Traveller joined Virgin Atlantic on its new route from London Heathrow to Bengaluru on 2 April. We caught up with CEO Shai Weiss on the flight over, discussing the carrier’s new services as well as wider topics such as sustainable aviation fuel and gender equality in the aviation industry.

How important is India as a market? Is Virgin looking at services to further cities?

Routes are like small businesses, you have to treat them like that. It usually takes between two to three years to reach peak performance. When you decide to do Mumbai double daily, you already have that daily service to Mumbai so you’re not starting from scratch. We can do better on these routes, but the bet we’re making on India is not new. Next year will be 25 years of flying from London to India. Next year will be 1 million seats in 25 years.

It’s a major bet and you just need to look at the numbers. The number of people who fly internationally out of India is about 1.5 flights per 100 people. It’s about a fifth of what it is in China. When you look at the potential here, we’re just at the beginning of this revolution. It’s no surprise that the largest number of planes on order are going into India, with 450 jets expected to fly here.

Look at the types of the customers – families and relatives, with 2 million people in the UK with Indian heritage, and of course business travel. We also connect so well with US and North America. When you get to India, we also have our partner IndiGo. We have everything covered.

My expectation is that the routes will do really well in the next five to ten years. This bet on India, which we started 25 years ago and enhanced in 2018/19, is coming into the next phase. About 10 per cent of our capacity is to India.

There were plans to launch routes to Mumbai and Delhi from Manchester in 2020 but these were dropped. Is Virgin planning to relaunch these in the future?

Right now, no. I’m sure at the appropriate time when we have more planes.

What are the main challenges with routes to India?

It’s all to do with connectivity. The visas could also be streamlined dramatically, and I’m sure at some point India will look again at this. In Bengaluru, the airport is fantastic – one of the best in India. And the number of airports it’s building is second to none. It’s not a matter of infrastructure or safety, it’s a matter of getting the schedule right, business right and making sure that the prices are good.

At a press conference held in Bengaluru on 3 April, Shai also commented on the demand for seats in the premium cabins on this route:

Over the next few years expect to see more changes to the way our planes are configured to allocate more seats in premium. We haven’t made those decisions yet, but I expect this market to be a more business-orientated market than the traditional markets of possibly Delhi and Mumbai.

British Airways already operates a daily route to Bengaluru, and Air India is launching a route from London Gatwick in May. Do you see enough demand for the three carriers?

In part of our preparations in launch for a new route, we factored in the competitive environment in which we operate. There’s room for everyone.

Bengaluru is known as India’s Silicon Valley. Virgin launched a route to Austin, Texas for similar reasons back in 2022 but cancelled the route after a year due to lack of corporate demand. Do you see more promise in Bengaluru? 

We get excited by new routes and sad when we have to cancel them. We have a highly intensive capital business. Those assets can be moved. As much as we would have liked Austin to succeed, it didn’t. It’s nothing to do with our customers, it’s more to do with our market and the state of tech in the US. It’s been a rough two years for tech in the US. We have to make the tough calls and allocate the assets to places that have a better chance. We think Bengaluru is one of them. We need to work extremely hard to make sure that we fulfil the demand, are as competitive and we provide the best service.

It just didn’t work out in Austin. I know we disappoint a lot of customers but we tried.  Sometimes it’s about the timing, and the timing was wrong. But never say never. When you work in an airline for a long time, you tend to go full circle. With smaller markets when there is entrenched competition, and you’re the second to come in, it doesn’t always work.

Our job is to do a good job. It’s not to say we didn’t do a good job in Austin. It’s very hard not to fight the fundamentals. One of our major customers is Meta. Meta was going to have a big office in Austin, but it didn’t exactly transpire. When one of our major customers decides not to invest in a market, it has a huge knock-on effect.

On the topic of the network, is there any news on Sao Paulo?

It’s delayed indefinitely. This is the second time we’ve delayed it. The inaugural was 31 March, 2020. We all know what happened. The second time around, we were a bit cautious coming into 2024 on the back of inflation, interest rates and corporate customers not returning in full force just yet. A route takes time to reach its full potential. We wanted to protect 2024 a bit more and make sure that the overall financial performance fulfils our plan to return to profitability this year. One of the things was to taper down new and exciting routes.

You’ll say, what’s the difference with Bengaluru? Well, we already operate in India and have been for 25 years. Sao Paulo is a whole new continent. Personally, I love Brazil and I really hope we can open it up.  Had there been no pandemic we probably would have been in our fourth year flying to Sao Paulo. But there is one advantage, we can still move the planes.

How about Seoul, are there any further announcements on the launch?

We’re waiting for the merger with Asiana and Korean Air. When that happens I expect us to fly to Seoul. For us, it’s also a great way of connecting to all of Japan.

Virgin has now been a member of Skyteam for over a year. What benefits are you seeing?

It’s where all our partners are, so the benefits are huge. Delta, Air France-KLM, ourselves, and SAS will come in. That gives you the recognition for the elite customers, the reciprocity of lounges, frequent flyer services that allow this and enhanced codeshare. It gives customers the unified service across the member carriers. It’s a growing and strengthening partnership, so we’re pretty pleased with it.

Not everyone can go into the Clubhouse though.

The Clubhouses are the temple of service. You’ve got to earn to enter the temple.

We last spoke at a dinner event prior to Virgin’s Flight100 initiative. Have you seen further interest and support for SAF since this took place? 

First of all it was amazing because we proved a point – that 100 per cent SAF on a commercial long-haul flight can be done. It’s very much to the tagline of the flight (you make it, we fly it). At the beginning of May we will also do a symposium in Westminster sharing all the findings from the flight.

It also became the topic of the day. People understood it in a way they hadn’t before. They asked so many questions. It brought it to the masses in a more digestible, intuitive, and real way. We happen to be the poster child for climate change. You can either do two things: hide or lead. Our position has always been to lead.

We recently published a feature on women in the aviation industry. What is Virgin doing to push for gender equality and diversity in general?

About 45 per cent of our leadership positions are held by women. When it comes to leadership positions, I’m not worried. That’s happening [but] we need to go further. I’d like to see a female CEO.

With pilots, we’d like to see as many as we can. We need to create the pool for pilots. This is a decade in progress. You need to convince girls young in STEM education. Our programme Passport to Change is all about STEM. We’re having more success with engineering, through apprenticeships.

We’re committed but I don’t want to say that the journey is a short one. These are long-term cycles. It should be equal opportunity and 50/50 because there’s no difference. Most companies are working on it, we’re not the only one.

And finally, can you tell us a bit about the delivery of planes this year?

We’ve had six this year (four A339s, two A350s). We just took delivery of Wendy Darling in Toulouse. There will be 45 planes by the end of this year. By 2028 we’ll be entirely next-generation (we’re 70 per cent at the moment). We already operate one of the youngest fleets across the Atlantic, it’s only going to get better.

At a press conference held on 3 April in Bengaluru, Shai also spoke on the topic of the new increases to the rate of Air Passenger Duty paid by those travelling in premium cabins in the UK. 

We think the UK has gone a bit too far. This last raise was a surprise to me, to the industry and I think to our passengers. At the end of the day, people think that aviation is a free-for-all and that you can tax it as much as you want in the UK…

I keep on telling our government that if there’s a country in the world that should understand that aviation is important, it’s the UK. We happen to be an island. We are fortunate to have some of the leading airlines in the world. When you look at companies that you want to emulate, you look at UK aviation.

I urge our Chancellor, Prime Minister and government that rather than just taxing aviation, they should be doing everything they can to promote UK industry to be a beacon of growth and return to prosperity.