Virgin Australia has revealed major changes to its business class lounges as it rolls out its road map for the future.
After months of speculation about what a rebooted Virgin Australia would look like, the airline’s new chief executive officer Jayne Hrdlicka has announced it would not head down the budget nor full-service routes but will instead be a “mid-market” carrier that will keep its Economy, Economy X and Business classes.
While free food in economy will be a notable omission from Virgin flights in the future, its network of lounges is finally returning after a COVID shutdown – with a few key changes.
The Cairns, Darwin and Mackay lounges will be shut down for good, joining Alice Springs, Perth T2 and Wellington, whose closures have already been announced.
A decision on the Canberra lounge is still pending.
But the lounge in Virgin Australia’s home airport in Brisbane is open again, and will soon be joined by Sydney, Melbourne, Adelaide, Perth T1 and the Gold Coast.
“We’re in the Brisbane lounge right now and the energy is fantastic, we’ve had very high numbers of guests in that lounge today and you can feel the buzz right across the airport,” Ms Hrdlicka told news.com.au on Wednesday.
“It’s just really a positive sign that Virgin is beginning the journey of its next chapter.”
Ms Hrdlicka said the company was particularly excited about its new Adelaide lounge, whose April opening was delayed due to COVID-19, and will now open in early 2021 with an “experience and aesthetic more aligned to the Virgin brand”.
“It is a new look lounge for us and a prototype that will be the framework for other lounges as we go through the cycle of lounge upgrades,” Ms Hrdlicka said.
“We’re really keen to begin to innovate now on what the future lounge food service will be, because now it’s a COVID experience and that’s pretty constrained, but there’s a lot of positive energy to continue to innovate and continue to deliver great guest experiences.”
What is less certain is exactly what the airline’s domestic and international networks will look like, due to Australia’s dynamic internal borders and the overseas travel ban.
“This is an environment where you really do have to plan for the worst but hope for the best so you can navigate through whatever comes your way,” Ms Hrdlicka said.
“It’s not easy for any business to run in a stop-start mode, but it’s particularly difficult for airlines to do that and it’s particularly difficult for our people, because you can imagine they want certainty in how many hours they’re going to be able to get, how quickly they can come back to work, and we can’t make commitments to anybody, which is really devastating.
“We’re really hopeful for a national framework to manage this crisis because I don’t think we can keep this up for another 12 months as a country where we’re stopping and starting all the time.”
When interstate travel was fully back, the new CEO said the domestic network would serve “all the places that are really important to our heartland”.
“We’re constrained at the moment because we’ve been in administration and we’ve got border dynamics which are very tricky to navigate, but we’ll get back to where we were in terms of planning a really important role in enabling Australians to connect with the best of Australia,” she said.
Ms Hrdlicka said things were looking positive with the New Zealand travel bubble but it was unclear when Virgin would expand more broadly overseas.
“We would like to see more travel bubbles opening up but I think it’s going to be a bit tricky because to have a really good national framework that everyone feels confident in, all the states feel confident in, the state premiers feel good (about),” she said.
“We really shouldn’t be opening up at all if we’re not really confident we can manage it. We shouldn’t open it up and then shut it down, open it up and shut it down, because people around us in the world are losing confidence.
“We’re in an unfortunate position where we don’t have a crystal ball.
“We’re hungry to get domestic to some sense of scale and borders open, because that’s a first step, and then we’re hungry to start to test other market opportunities but there’s a lot that has to be ready and in position for that to work.”
Virgin Australia is not Ms Hrdlicka’s only role in aviation – she previously held the top job at Jetstar for five years, until 2018.
“I’ve had a little more than two decades in aviation and I’ve seen a lot of challenging times and a lot of really great times in aviation,” she said.
“I’m really honoured and delighted to be able to work with the team to write the next chapter of Virgin Australia’s history.”
In other changes announced today, complimentary snacks in economy would be replaced by purchase-only food, although free tea, coffee and water will keep being offered. In-flight entertainment and Wi-Fi was under review.
The airline also announced plans to revamp airport check-in facilities and said there would be “no material changes” to the Velocity Frequent Flyer program.
“Australia already has a low-cost-carrier and a traditional full-service airline, and we won’t be either,” Ms Hrdlicka said in a statement this morning.
“Virgin Australia will be a mid-market carrier appealing to customers who are after a great value airfare and better service. We will continue to evolve our offering for our customers based on data and feedback, but the Virgin Australia experience millions of travellers know and love is here to stay.”
The changes were announced this morning as US private equity firm Bain Capital formally took over the airline following seven months of insolvency restructuring.
Administrator Deloitte handed over the reins after the $3.5 billion sale to Bain Capital was completed on Tuesday.