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.

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Report by Tom Otley

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