Liezl Gericke, Head of Middle East, Africa, and South Asia at Virgin Atlantic visited Israel last weekend for the British carrier’s sponsorship of the Tel Aviv Pride Week.
We met with Gericke during her visit for a special interview at Virgin Atlantic offices in Tel Aviv; Justin Bell, County Manager Nigeria and Israel at Virgin Atlantic was also in attendance.
Gericke is acquainted with the tourism and aviation industry in Israel, demonstrating throughout the interview great familiarity with everything that has transpired in Israel in the last two years. She knows all the major players in the industry, and it seems like the friendly British carrier is making every effort to become well-rooted in Israel.
In her interview, Gericke reiterated Virgin Atlantic’s commitment to Israel and praised the airline’s cooperation with Maman Aviation, the airline’s representative in Israel.
Virgin Atlantic is relatively new to Israel. You started flying to Tel Aviv in September 2019. Unfortunately, the pandemic forced you to stop in your tracks. How do you see your activity on this route, which has garnered many compliments since its relaunch?
“Indeed, we returned last month to operate the route to Israel. Tel Aviv was, in fact, the first destination we launched after COVID, and the goal was to do it right. It isn’t easy, and we must navigate the Israeli market well and correctly. My team and I know Israel, but not enough. We had a lot of time during the pandemic to learn about Israel. We learned everything possible to understand the culture and prepare our teams. We invested a lot in getting to know the Israeli market and all issues and problems related to your country.
“In our PA systems, we publish messages in Hebrew, and we’ve added shakshuka to our menus on this and other routes, such as India and South Africa. These days we are about to recruit an Israeli representative who speaks Hebrew and knows the market well to help us operate in Israel seamlessly and efficiently.”
Right now, you have a daily flight on the route. According to your plan, disrupted during corona, you were already scheduled to operate a second daily flight on the route to Tel Aviv. Is there a chance we will see this soon?
“We just relaunched the route last month and constantly monitor traffic and demand. If we see an increase in demand, we will increase the frequency to two daily flights, as we planned from the beginning. This is our goal, but, of course, it depends on the situation.”
Israelis can be demanding clients. They buy a ticket and think they bought the plane. Many companies fly to London, and there are quite a few daily flights. Do you think you need more exposure in the Israeli market, emphasizing your unique selling points?
“Absolutely right. We have to do it. The flight between Tel Aviv and London is actually our shortest. A total of four and a half hours. We must emphasize the difference between us and the other airlines that fly to London, especially low-cost companies, and highlight the comfort of flying in a wide-body plane, plus our excellent service and flight conditions.”
Let’s get back a bit to the corona crisis. You have received £1.2 billion in financial support from various sources, while the owners, Richard Branson with 51% and Delta Air Lines with 49%, also had to invest significantly to keep the company afloat. Is Virgin’s financial situation more stabilized now?
“The last two years have been challenging, and that’s putting it mildly. The government and owners have rallied to help the carrier survive. We have prepared a conservation plan believing that after the pandemic, we will recover. Both owners, investors, and shareholders have confidence in the company’s future. Of course, our initial objective is to stabilize if we expect profitability next year.
“We have clear and defined plans. Our volume of operations is already approaching pre-pandemic levels. As a relatively small airline, we make decisions and implement them quickly. We have made important changes to our fleet system. We have taken our old planes out of service and are making good use of the new planes. Our fleet is one of the industry’s youngest and most technologically innovative, with an average of 5.5 years.”
As I mentioned, Delta Air Lines owns 49% of Virgin Atlantic, and you also have a cooperation agreement with the Air France-KLM Group. How do these relationships affect your activity?
“These partnerships are beneficial to all partner companies, and of course, the great significance is in the transatlantic routes and destinations worldwide. We are constantly exploring how we can benefit from these partnerships and what our passengers can derive from them. For example, London has various options for connecting flights to the United States.”
The aviation industry is now experiencing strong recovery worldwide. What is the scope of Virgin’s current operations compared to the same period in 2019?
“Of course, it depends on how and where we fly. Removing restrictions enforced by the different countries is very beneficial for returning the demand for flights to where it previously was. The most important routes are the transatlantic ones between Britain and North America, and they are the ones that will determine our level of recovery.
“Our goal, as I have already mentioned, is to achieve stability. It is essential to us, even if here and there we are forced to make such and such changes, to win the trust of our customers. Therefore, I believe that during 2022, we will achieve the goals we have set for ourselves and succeed in stabilizing our activities towards future expansion.”
Israel has serious problems at our international airport. Massive queues, a severe personnel shortage, mayhem in baggage distribution, and flight delays. The Israel Airports Authority recently warned this is just a prelude to the nightmare we can expect to see in July-August. We know that there are similar problems in the UK…
“Same thing happens everywhere, in most airports worldwide, when everyone wants to fly after such a long hiatus. From personal experience, I recommend flying without checking in luggage. It is still impossible these days to fly as we flew before the pandemic. All airports in the UK suffer from the same problems.”
Can you tell us about Virgin Atlantic’s plans for the coming year?
“Our goal, as I mentioned, is, first of all, to stabilize our operations and later to expand. Our great ambition is to be the world’s most-loved airline. When you choose to fly Virgin, you choose an airline you love. At the same time, of course, we have different operational challenges. Our practical goal is to become a profitable company by next year, in 2023, both for the carrier’s stability and for our shareholders.”
And finally, do you see a difference between how travelers book flights these days and bookings before COVID, especially in light of the unstable situation, the fear of COVID, security issues, and the many flight cancellations? Do passengers prefer to book directly or through travel agents?
“There is no doubt the crisis has highlighted the importance of travel agents globally. Passengers want security and someone to help them when their journey goes wrong. At Virgin, we have faith in travel agents in general and in Israel in particular. They are our most important partners. They mean a lot to us, and a good relationship with them is essential to our operation.”