UK long-haul carrier Virgin Atlantic has already sealed 18 interline agreements as part of its preparations to join SkyTeam, a long-anticipated move that was finally confirmed on Sept. 27.
Virgin has been tipped to join SkyTeam since it formed a joint venture (JV) with founding alliance member Delta Air Lines in 2012. That transatlantic JV was extended to include SkyTeam heavyweight Air France-KLM, and Virgin has now accepted that alliance membership is the way forward.
“Many of our partners are really at the core of SkyTeam, so it's about time that we do what's right for our business and we do what's right for our customers and join,” Virgin Atlantic CEO Shai Weiss said, announcing the decision at a briefing in central London. “If we've learned anything over the last three years, it is that the strength of any individual, any company, is enhanced by partnerships.”
Weiss said joining preparations have been underway for more than a year and are already at an “advanced” stage. Virgin has finalized interline agreements with 18 SkyTeam members and codeshares with Aeromexico and Middle East Airlines.
“In terms of going live, it should be very early in 2023. There's already a lot of work that has happened in the background,” Weiss said.
Virgin, Delta and Air France-KLM are already co-located at Heathrow Terminal 3, alongside fellow SkyTeam members Aeromexico and China Eastern.
“Well, the cat is out of the bag,” SkyTeam CEO Kristin Colvile said. “Virgin is the first new airline to join SkyTeam in over eight years.”
Colvile said SkyTeam hopes for Virgin’s joining process to be completed by January 2023, but the alliance is officially saying the airline will become a member early next year. “We’re shooting for the end of January. We just don't want to overcommit at this point,” she said. “The next couple of months it's all systems go.”
Weiss said one topic still being negotiated is SkyTeam passenger access to Virgin’s iconic Clubhouse lounge at Heathrow, noting there could be a surge in demand with alliance membership. “Access to the lounges is something we need to think about, to make sure the experience is not deteriorated,” he said.
Virgin has a network of 27 destinations, spanning China, India, Israel, Nigeria, Pakistan, South Africa and the US. In May, Virgin launched flights from LHR to Austin (AUS), the capital of Texas, and service between LHR and Tampa (TPA) in Florida will start in November. Weiss said further route launches are planned, but he declined to give details.
However, he gave two clarifications on Virgin’s network strategy. First, Virgin has no plans to return to short-haul flying, after several failed attempts at creating a domestic feeder operation from Heathrow and Manchester. “That’s probably going to be delayed indefinitely. Maybe we’ll come back to it one day,” Weiss said.
Similarly, Virgin is continuing to focus its London operations on LHR after suspending Gatwick (LGW) flights during the pandemic. LGW “just doesn't have a lot of connectivity that can feed a long-haul carrier,” he said. “We still hold slots at Gatwick, so never say never, but it's not in the plans for 2023 for Virgin Atlantic to fly out of Gatwick.”
The post-COVID-19 demand surge, coupled with inflation and the cost-of-living crisis, are causing uncertainty over Virgin’s outlook for this winter, but Weiss believes people will still want to travel.
“This summer Virgin Atlantic has actually done very well, well ahead of our plans, and when we look forward into Q4 of this year and actually already into Q1 , things are still stable,” Weiss said. “I have no doubt there will be implications [from the economic headwinds], both to individuals and companies, but right now it's still looking good. We'll see how the long-term impact manifests itself.”
SkyTeam’s existing members are Aeroflot (suspended), Aerolineas Argentinas, Aeromexico, Air Europa, Air France, China Airlines, China Eastern, Czech Airlines, Garuda Indonesia, ITA Airways, Kenya Airways, KLM, Korean Air, Middle East Airlines, Saudia, TAROM, Vietnam Airlines and XiamenAir.
“Our focus right now is not on growing SkyTeam,” Colvile said. “It’s not something we’re actively looking at. We have almost a singular focus on technology and rolling out seamless connectivity.”
SkyTeam has been rolling out a “digital spine” project, which aims to give better IT connectivity across the alliance’s 19 member airlines. “Essentially at its heart, it's a giant translator that enables all of those disparate systems and all of our airlines to be able to talk and understand one another,” Colvile explained.
Once that effort is fully rolled out, passengers will be able to “truly self-serve,” including check in, select seats and track bags across multi-sector SkyTeam journeys.
Aeromexico and Delta have been working on a pilot project for check-in across member airlines. “We're just now beginning to roll that out. Within six months, we will have all SkyTeam airlines connected for check-in,” Colvile said. “That's a big improvement to where we are today. And then it's just additional utilities, like seats, tracking bags, more loyalty benefits, taking care of you when there's a flight disruption, all of that.”
She added that seven airlines are now also connected for bag tracking.