Aviation News

April 23, 2012

Virgin America CEO David Cush Chats Candidly About Airline’s Website Meltdown, Future of In-Flight WiFi

Virgin America President & CEO David Cush, center, is greeted by Virgin Group founder Sir Richard Branson, left, in Philadelphia. (Photo by Manny Gonzalez/NYCAviation)
Virgin America President & CEO David Cush, center, is greeted by Virgin Group founder Sir Richard Branson, left, in Philadelphia. (Photo by Manny Gonzalez/NYCAviation)
Our recent experience on Virgin America’s inaugural Los Angeles-Philadelphia service wasn’t just about schmoozing with celebs, downing free cocktails and playing It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia trivia.

Somewhere around Kansas, we sat down with Virgin America President and CEO David Cush to chat about the airline’s recent website meltdown, their reputation for raucous route launches and how many people really use in-flight WiFi.

NYCAviation: How’s this flight going so far compared to previous city launches?
David Cush: It’s pretty quiet so far. I think that’s because the flight left so early, but for example, the Fort Lauderdale launch we did out of LA, also was early, an 8 AM departure, but by 10 AM people were doing tequila shots in the back galley. So this one will probably get crankin’ up pretty good here soon.

Before it gets too nuts in here, let’s talk about your airline. Do you have any further expansion plans out of Philadelphia or the east coast in general?
Well, this is a pretty big commitment from day one, you know. Five flights, all long-hauls, so we’re gonna wait and see how this does. I think addtiononal flights would likely be a third from San Francisco, but that’s well down the line.

Our focus beyond this will be, in all honesty, an airport just down the road at Reagan National where they’re going to open up some slots and we want to fly into there also.

Longer term, Virgin America will be taking delivery of about 60 additional planes over the next several years, at which point you’ll have over 100. Where are they all going to go?
Most of them will come out of San Francisco and LA, those are really our focus markets. But I think once we get those built out, which is probably another 20 to 30 airplanes, we’ll be a little bit more opportunistic. We’ll see markets that are underserved who will like this product, which is really a long-haul product, then we’ll jump in. But no real plans beyond San Francisco and LA right now.

Any idea what the wifi usage rate is on Virgin America compared to other carriers?
We’re certainly higher than other guys. On a system average we’re in the low- to mid-20s. However, that varies widely by flight. If you look at our San Francisco-Boston, which is our highest penetration flight, we generally are over 50 percent on that flight. Same thing on San Francisco-JFK.

And it’s becoming a little bit of a problem. The network is slowed down. This is now an expectation of business travelers. With US Airways announcing last week they’ll be putting wifi on their planes it’s becoming more difficult.

We will be the launch customer for the new Gogo antenna, which will be a multi-directional antenna that can point to the most underused cell. We hope we can get that on an airplane this summer and test it out. But our plan is, if it does what they say it will do, which is four-times the speed that we currently have, then we’ll put it on all the airplanes.

Regarding the IT problems Virgin America has experienced over the past couple of months. Are those solved?
Are they solved? I would say yes they are. Our call center times are back down to normal. That’s usually your best indication, when people aren’t calling anymore. We’re answering 80 percent of our calls in under 40 seconds, which is our target. We don’t receive the complaints we were receiving on the website.

We have a lot of monitoring tools. We’ve used Omniture quite a bit, in terms of people dropping off the site. We used Tealeaf, which gives us an idea of sessions that are aborted and why they’re aborted. So we have a pretty good idea that things are working well, and now we’re focused on enhancements, which is really what this was all about.

We went in knowing it was going to be rocky. We had a significant transition because we were also going from ticketless to e-ticketing, and that’s a very complicated process of redoing all those records. That’s something United didn’t have to deal with. We also had a very unstable website already, but it was an unstable website that was used to its platform.

So we kind of knew what we were getting into. But my biggest concern, and the reason I rushed the implementation was our old system was also highly unstable. We went for three days in May of 2011 with the system being down. We can do that when we have 28 airplanes, which we did back then. Now we have 50 airplanes: It would basically drown the airline.

What have you learned from those issues?
The one thing I learned from it more than anything else, that I think I would do differently, and I think that United would probably do differently, and that I would counsel anyone who’s getting ready to go through this process, is go ahead and estimate the number of reservations call center agents that you think you’re going to need for the transition and then double it. That is where all problems end up falling, at the call center doorstep. That’s where people’s frustrations are the highest, is if they can’t get something done on the web, and then they can’t get through to the call center.

Our friends at Virgin Australia are getting ready to go through a transition later this year, also to Sabre, and that’s been my counsel to them. Go out and find as many Sabre call center support agents as you can, even if it’s third-party, and even if it’s for six months.

Answer the phones and most of your problems will go away.

Thanks so much, David.