Just like 30 years ago, Virgin Atlantic has taken established products and improved on them to create something unique. And, just like 30 years ago, we expect other airlines will rush to match Virgin Atlantic's new, enlightened standard.
It’s the age-old question: What do you get the birthday girl who has everything? If you’re Virgin Atlantic, you get her good lighting.
Named “Birthday Girl” to celebrate 30 years since the airline’s inaugural flight on the competitive trans-Atlantic London to New York route, this new Virgin Atlantic Dreamliner embodies a new age of aircraft interiors design: the age of enlightenment.
As the race inside the aircraft interiors space intensifies, options for differentiation and in-flight product innovation are limited by the small subset of interiors manufacturers and suppliers certified for airline cabin products. For trend-setters, like Virgin Atlantic, well-established high standards make setting a higher bar for design a challenge.
The airline has overcome these limitations by using the oldest theater trick in the book: put good lighting on the star of the show. In this case, the star is Birthday Girl, the cabin is her stage, and the crew are the players.
The stage is set with high quality props. The upper class has 31 Zodiac UCS3 seats, angled to make the most of the extra room the Dreamliner affords. Virgin Atlantic has passed these space benefits on to passengers.
“The 787 is only 6 inches wider than the A340-600/330 aircraft from Airbus,” says Nik Lusardi, Virgin Altantic’s design manager for customer experience, “but the net effect of the cabin design itself, the way that Boeing have really maximized the space inside the cabin, means you can actually push the seats further out. You can give space back to other parts of the seat and increase the bed length. You can increase the whole perception of space in the cabin.”
Larger windows, vaulted ceilings, advanced air filtration, quieter engines and air condition, better humidity controls and larger overhead bins are features all Dreamliner customers tout. Virgin Atlantic has played-off these strengths by insisting on custom elements which make Birthday Girl unique.
“Each of the materials are bespoke,” says Lusardi. “We very rarely take anything off the shelf, especially anything that’s customer-facing, that the customer will interact with. Fabrics, plastic colors, are all bespoke.”
This is a difficult trick to perform, with aircraft and component manufacturers pushing airlines to buy off the catalogue.
Lusardi acknowledges this challenge. “It can be a strained relationship with manufacturers, but ultimately a lot of our manufacturers have worked with us for years and they understand where we’re coming from,” he says. “I genuinely think that it’s a scenario where we can learn from each other. We try to raise the bar with everything we do in the cabin. We aim high.”
In the Premium Economy cabin (a service class Virgin Atlantic basically created) the airline has made a complete overhaul.
“We’ve striped down our existing [Premium Economy] seat and we’ve reevaluated that seat completely,” Lusardi tells Skift. “We’ve made changes to improve our customer experience. What you see is now the result of ergonomic changes to the seat with a huge difference in comfort. We’ve increased the knee room, so when the person is reclined in the seat in front of you there is a net effect of an extra inch to inch and a half.”
“We’ve also tried to position the passengers slightly differently in the seat,” Lusardi continues, “so we’ve moved them back but maintained the same pitch.” The 35 re-designed Zodiac Reverb Premium Economy seats on Birthday Girl have a 38-inch pitch.
“We thought long and hard about the trim and finish of the seat, so the premium leather you get in Upper Class you now get in Premium Economy also. We have also ensured that the recline throughout the whole cabin is the same, with no restrictions in the back rows, so it doesn’t feel like you’ve been shortchanged if you have to sit in the back. It’s very important that our customers get that, while there is economy in the name Premium Economy, it is definitely a premium product.”
Virgin Atlantic doesn’t want Economy passengers to feel shortchanged either. The 198 customized Recaro 3620 seats, at a 31-inch pitch, with three triples at nine-abreast, were selected for comfort.
“To us, it’s about balance of the cabin,” Lusardi says. “We’ve been able to affect that from a trim and finish perspective. There’s a lot of red in that cabin, but we’ve also tempered that with the espresso and the black cherry that runs through some of the other cabins. Those seats really complement the 787 fuselage and the interior design that Boeing have given us, from the bins to the floor area. The seat is very flexible as well. It allows us to have an armrest which can be pushed back. In the case that the seat next to you is empty, you can spread yourself out a bit more, if you need to, in that cabin.”
Though in-flight entertainment (IFE) equipment varies according to cabin class (11” screens on Upper Class and Premium Economy, 9” in Economy), the IFE and in-flight connectivity (IFC) are high-end throughout. Premium Economy passengers enjoy the same IFE equipment as Upper Class passengers. Virgin Atlantic selected Panasonic’s exConnect system adding KU-Band Wi-Fi onboard a cost of £14.99 per flight.
The Panasonic exConnect system is further enhanced by Virgin Atlantic’s own Vera Touch 2 user interface, which leads passengers to a custom portal where they can browse through the airline’s select information services without needing to connect online. And every seat on the plane has power outlets.
At center stage of the Birthday Girl experience, is the Upper Class bar, which greets all passengers on boarding. This is where the airline’s clever use of lighting is most evident. In this centerpiece bar, Virgin Atlantic’s play of light first comes to life. It is a play characterized by changing tones and moods. Each phase adjusts to activities in the cabin, Luzardi tells us. “It gives a timeline for customers so they feel like something is evolving. It creates movement throughout the cabin because we inject movement in the lighting also.”
As Lusardi explains the light plays off the aircraft’s surfaces in a unique way.
“We’ve been using geometric forms for quite a while now on the ground projects, and we wanted to evolve the bar area in particular. We have designed a geometric pattern specifically for the 787, and used that in certain areas and in different scales throughout the cabin to embellish on the mood lighting situated within the panels and the bar unit, and in monuments. That theme then runs [throughout the aircraft]. The way the mood lighting has been programmed, we can affect those panels independently of the complete cabin, and of the bar itself. We can create animation with light that is felt through those special panels.”
Why so much focus on light? It’s a design strategy which allows Virgin Atlantic those important quick-changes behind the curtain in the travel scene.
“The mood lighting allows us to change the feeling and the emotional aspect of the cabin very quickly,” says Lusardi. “We have got white—which can be quite a stark color—but we’ve blended it with metallic element. When the light hits it, it absorbs the light and projects it back into the cabin, or absorbs it and retains it so that it takes on the color of the light, which changes the cabin feel. That’s a strain that runs through the whole aircraft. It’s the DNA thread that runs throughout the cabins. The light is the conduit. We’ve focused long and hard on that element. The tangible elements in the cabin are the canvas on which we paint the brush-strokes of our customer experience. That’s where we can really can improve things quickly, we can react very quickly.”
This lighting quick reaction is a key differentiator for Virgin Atlantic, and a competitive advantage.
“In this industry nothing happens quickly, it’s actually hard coded,” Lusardi says, “but where we can affect things very quickly, where we can shift and we can react to trends and global forces, is through the digital realm and through our customer experience. The world has changed, but it does’t mean that the standard of our hard coded product has been diminished in any way whatsoever. The two things are symbiotic and they should complement each other.”
The cabin-crew players also help Virgin Atlantic stay current, while maintaining the brand’s story of service and fun. “They are the ambassadors of the brand and the voice of Virgin Atlantic,” Lusardi tells us. The cabin, he explains, has been designed to compliment them. In an aircraft toned down with espressos, whites, and black cherry, the crew become more prominent. “We introduced our new uniform in September and that is the red of Virgin Atlantic. Our crew are the guardians of the brand onboard the aircraft. We’ve pared back the whole color scheme to allow that red to come through from the crew.”
Thirty years on, Virgin Atlantic’s Birthday Girl has a newer, more sophisticated image. Times have changed and Virgin Atlantic has kept up beautifully. Newly enlightened, the airline expects to keep up, even stay ahead, for many years to come.
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Photo credit: Interior of Virgin Atlantic's "Birthday Girl." Virgin Atlantic