Virgin Atlantic opens new Upper Class drive-through at T3

19 Oct 2007 by Mark Caswell

As regular passengers on British Airways wait with impatience for the opening of
Terminal 5 and the promised end to their hassles at Heathrow, other travellers
may find their journeys are beginning to improve. Virgin Atlantic, for one, has
plans which will begin to see fruition for its travellers next month.

Opening on November 2, it is billed as the world’s
fastest airport check-in, which it probably is. But for regular business
travellers used to checking in online, the real draw is from being kept separate
from the ‘Heathrow Hassle’ which has been such a feature of travel through the
airport this year.

The good news for all of Virgin Atlantic’s
passengers, whether flying in economy, premium economy or upper class is that
the current work at Terminal 3 will benefit everyone, with a revamped check-in
area, new self-check in kiosks and a brighter experience. For the airline’s
business class passengers, however, there is the prospect of a wholly new
experience in a purpose-built, drive-through check-in.

Increased competition on routes such as those to
New York seems a near-certainty in 2008, and the new facility is Virgin’s trump
card. Virgin saw an increase of 11 per cent in business class passengers in the
12 months September 2006-2007, carrying some 500,000 passengers in Upper Class.
Of those, some 50 per cent currently use the drive-though service.

The drive through is accessed by a purpose-built
ramp up to the first floor area level with departures. Passengers who have
pre-booked the chauffeur-drive service will have been picked up by their car
(operated by Tristar), all of which have telemetry inside allowing the Virgin
check-in staff to know exactly when a passenger is due to arrive.

The cars then drive up to a purpose-built area with
eight bays, where they are met by a host, their luggage is tagged, they are
checked in (if they have not done so themselves online) and then they are walked
through to a dedicated fast track security. Gold card holders in Virgin’s Flying
Club frequent-flyer programme who are on other tickets can also access this area
via the lift to one side of Upper Class check-in on the floor below.

Virgin Atlantic’s Chief Executive Officer Steve
Ridgway told Business Traveller that the aim was to allow Upper Class passengers
to completely avoid the “Heathrow Hassle”.

“The idea is to insulate them from the airport
experience, and the best way to do so was to have a dedicated area for them.” he
said, “We’ve timed this, and once they are through this dedicated security line,
it’s only a two-minute walk to the Clubhouse, so we are aiming to process them
in a maximum time of 10 minutes. For most Upper Class passengers arriving by
limo, the time will be considerably less.”

Ridgway also pointed out that once Terminal 5
opened and Terminal 2 closed, the traffic congestion around Terminal 3 would be
considerably lessened. The development has come at considerable cost to Virgin
Atlantic, but Ridgway believes it’s a price worth paying, citing the positive
effect Virgin’s Clubhouse in Terminal 3 has had on bookings.

“You wouldn’t normally expect an airport lounge to
make a difference to the airline people choose to fly with, but we’ve seen a
considerable effect. We believe that the Clubhouse has influenced passenger’s
booking behaviour and created a considerable share shift. We are hoping the
drive through will continue that shift.”

Ridgway says the airline is aiming to have 80 per
cent of all its passengers checking in either via the internet or using the
kiosks in the revamped check in area by the end of 2008.

For more information visit

Report by Tom Otley

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