“Seat Plus” – Virgin Atlantic’s way of marketing the idea of an “Extra Seat”

A little known fact is that you can buy an extra seat from the airline when travelling. This is commonly used by musicians who don’t wish to check valuable musical instruments into the hold, and more recently to accommodate bariatric passengers who can’t fit in a single seat.

Those in the know also book extra seats to make long haul journeys in economy a little more bearable – we all know the wave of relief when the announcement says “boarding complete” and you’ve got an open seat next to you.

But, the airlines have tended to not like you doing it unless you really have a need. Depending on the airline, the extra seat can be cheaper than the seat you’ll actually be sat in (no meals, no extra bag entitlement, etc.), so it loses them some revenue.

Virgin Atlantic have decided to market the idea of extra seat, but it’s not quite the same concept. In this case, they are only bookable from 72 hours in advance – i.e. when Virgin know the plane is or isn’t going to go with empty seats, and they can be as cheap as ÂŁ99 per flight.

In theory, it sounds like a good idea – by paying a fee, you can be certain you’ll have a bit more space, and Virgin get a little bit of money for that seat which would otherwise have gone empty.

I’ve not flown Virgin now for over two years, and that means I don’t have any status in their frequent flyer scheme anymore (I was Gold for about 8-10 years). Giving away “Seat Plus” to a Flying Club Gold member would be a fantastic perk, wouldn’t it? Don’t know if they are planning on doing it though.

Planes, Trains, and a couple of bus companies from Scotland…

Well, the Great British Public have rallied around the underdog, as per usual, this in the Great Train Sale. There have been huge outpourings of support for Virgin Trains since the news that they would not be running the services out of Euston from December, and there is even an e-petition to urge the Government to look again at the decision which is gaining a lot of support.

It’s also going to be more than a co-incidence that Virgin Atlantic have announced a move into UK domestic operations the week after the news that the WCML franchise would be going to a competitor. Even though there has been speculation that this was on the cards since BA bought UK competitor BMI, and there must have been planning going on in the background, launching when they did has maximised publicity for the new VAA operation, riding the wave of publicity around Richard Branson saying words to the effect “We probably won’t bid for another rail franchise again, unless things change”. Because it’s diversified, Virgin can afford to “walk away”, or at least appear to, and at the same time deliver a parting blow to both the DfT and the incoming WCML franchisee, First Group.

Of course, being the underdog is nothing new to Branson – think of the “Dirty Tricks” affair with BA – so he knows how to play this role pretty well, and the man in the street finds it easy to get behind Branson as being a “people’s champion” versus the dull, bland corporates.

However, what happens next? Well, unless Virgin decide to back off, accept the franchise loss, and decide to compete in the air, it’s going to cost us (and by “us”, I mean the UK taxpayer) even more money:

If the franchise is debated in Parliament as a result of the petition, it will cost the taxpayer money.

If Virgin decide to appeal the decision, and take it to a judicial review, this will cost the taxpayer money.

If the DfT make a u-turn and decide to take the franchise away from First Group, and award it to Virgin, then First will likely want a review of their own, and/or seek compensation. Who’s going to pay for that? The taxpayer. Not First shareholders, not Stagecoach shareholders (remember, they own 49% of VT), not Richard Branson, who I’m thinking was evidently right when he dismissed rail franchising as “insane”.

The whole crazy privatisation, hashed together by the bungling Major Government, of Britain’s railways has cost the taxpayer billions, and delivered minimal benefit to the passenger.

The normal rules of a deregulated market do not apply on the majority of Britain’s railways. There is often no consumer choice other than “take it or leave it” for the majority of rail journeys, as only one operator provides a service. Many attempts at competition and open access have either failed (such as Wrexham & Shropshire), have been blocked because it threatens the incumbent franchisee, or are simply non-starters because there’s insufficient capacity in the infrastructure.

If a rail operator fails, then services aren’t allowed to stop running, because that would have disastrous consequences, instead the Government step in and constitute a quango to run the service, while the private company skulks off.

A bit like bailing out the banks when they screwed up. It’s already been done with the failure of Railtrack, and with a couple of franchises.

So, instead of competition and choice, we have an expensive raft of lawyers, consultants, and contract managers that has evolved to support our dysfunctional railway franchising and track access ecosystem.

For instance, because of the punitive blame-placing system of managing delays on the modern railway, there are teams of people known as “delay attributors” who trace train delays through the system, and work out how they were initially caused. Not so that the cause is avoided in future, so the delays are reduced, but primarily so that someone is “blamed” for the delay, so a settlement plan can push “pretend money” around between Network Rail and the train operators, because at the end of the day, it all likely balances out over time, and little real money actually changes hands.

This even costs money and time at the coal face. Example: A friend who is a Guard for a national operator was harrassed by their manager as to why their train took an extra two minutes between two points on the railway that their train didn’t even stop at. Of course, they had no idea why, because the train didn’t even stop there, and they were busy checking tickets. It left the previous station on time, and the train was on time the next station. Evidently, there was some pressure from a delay attributer on these two minutes even though they had no consequence for those on board the train. How is this a good use of our money?

Of course, this never really translates to benefit for the passenger (or the freight customer) – the various bodies involved in running the trains just point fingers.

There are a number of bodies, including the Bring Back British Rail campaign, who would like to see the railways renationalised, and they may have a point.

Ironically, during the latter years of BR, some elements of the business – such as Intercity – actually delivered a significant surplus. This in turn reduced the taxpayer burden on subsidising those services which required it – the benefit of an integrated company.

There have been attempts to build franchises which use this theory, such as the single First Great Western franchise – this used to be several seperate franchises, a profitable Intercity franchise, and subsidy-dependant commuter and rural services – the idea being a franchised operator can’t just cream off the profitable stuff, and there’s a resultant overall reduction in public subsidy for the commuter and rural services, being buoyed up by revenue from the longer distance services. However, given that First Group are now exercising the break clause in the Great Western franchise, allegedly as it’s no longer viable to pay the DfT to run the franchise (due to depressed revenues due to falling commuter numbers), even this hasn’t worked out quite as planned.

We’ve also got a laughable situation where it seems that a state-owned UK company cannot theoretically bid for a railway franchise, but at the same time we’ve got the commercial/international arms of mainland European state-owned rail operators who did, and now run UK rail franchises – Arriva (who also own Chiltern) are Deutsche Bahn, Abellio (behind Greater Anglia and Northern franchises) are Nederlandse Spoorwegen, and Keolis (who are part owners of Southern, SouthEastern, and TransPennine) are actually majority owned by SNCF. Does this consititute a net flow of taxpayer subsidy out of the UK?

This was recently highlighted in the Scottish Parliament – where you consider that ScotRail is 75% publically funded through subsidy – then why was this going to a commercial for-profit operator? Why could Holyrood not incorporate a Scottish state-owned non-profit company to run the service? Apparently, there’s some red tape in the 1993 Railways Act to deal with.

So, returning back to the WCML franchise: Branson is certain the First Group bid will result in an East Coast style bail-out. Now he’s competing in the sky, that may even give this a nudge. What if others follow Branson’s lead, dismiss railfranchising as “crazy”, and no-one wants to take on the poison chalice of the ECML?

If we assume for a moment that the new WCML franchise goes bump before the DfT can re-let ECML, does the Government end up running WCML and ECML?

Is that a foundation for re-nationalisation of train operations through the back door?

Virgin Atlantic launches “all new” Economy service

I saw that Virgin Atlantic have today launched a new Economy inflight service – their “best ever”, so they say. There is a shiny video online.

 

Call me a sceptic that belongs in an episode of “Grumpy Old Men“, but I can’t really see much from the promotional video that makes me think “Wow”:

  • The branding and packaging has changed – all part of marketing the product to the customer
  • It still features that kiddies’ tea party sized “mini-loaf” of bread that I remember from my first VS flight years ago
  • It still contains some classic Virgin touches like mid-flight ice-cream, now served from a cutesy usherette tray
  • The coffee/tea cups seem smaller than before, but serving dessert with coffee/tea seems a good move, having eaten my dessert and then waited ages for coffee.
  • The menu cards have returned (Virgin took them away early in the 2000’s as a cost-cutting measure)
  • Is the new lightweight tray, with it’s little indentations, meant to remind you of being at primary school?
  • Along with the new space-saving and lighter tray, there seems to be a reduction in some pre-packaged optional items, which is a plus – ever thought about how many packets of unasked for sugar airlines throw away each year?
  • But, they still use those woeful “Dairystix” pre-packed milk tubes – a triumph of packaging design that allows you to spill weird-tasting milk over your neighbour or, if you’re really unlucky, yourself. What about a milk jug?
  • It looks like afternoon tea-type second services are making a comeback, having been heavily pared back in the last decade.
  • But the vtravelled blog article says that “on shorter flights, you will get a light meal like high-tea” – does that mean no main meal at all on some sectors?
  • We don’t get to see what’s inside the shiny new packages – is it still the same iffy food that was always there before?

It’s good to see Virgin reinstating some elements of the service which were taken away in cuts of the last decade, and the weight-saving and waste-reducing features deserve applauding, but “all new” and “best ever” seems to be on the verge of overstating things. If they really meant to show how good this new service was, perhaps they wouldn’t be afraid to show us what we could expect inside the boxes.

Unless it really is yet another watery, drippy, lasagne, (or the ever dreary, ever present anaemic sausage and cement mash) in which case I wouldn’t blame them at all.

Postscript:

About an hour or two after publishing this blog post, I got the following email from Virgin Atlantic…

We’d like your feedback

Dear Customer,

In an effort to better understand our customers and improve our services at Virgin Atlantic, we are seeking to gain feedback about our customers’ use of social networking sites, particularly Facebook and Twitter.

To help us obtain this feedback, please click on the link below and fill in this survey.

So, someone or something is watching, somewhere 🙂