Virgin Atlantic: style and substance

18 December 2014

Millions fly every year, spending many hours in airports that often prioritise pragmatic concerns over style. Fresh from his work as head of design for Virgin Atlantic, Luke Miles talks to Oliver Hotham about how airlines that care about customer experience can improve an airport’s look and create an integrated design experience from check-in desk to airplane seat.

Anyone who's flown with Virgin Atlantic knows that its brand identity is inescapable. While many airlines look and sound much the same, Virgin is an all-encompassing experience - from the iconic crew uniforms and customer service, to the company's distinctive red colouring and rambunctious CEO. Virgin promises a journey that hopes to bring the glamour back into flying, but doesn't take itself too seriously. This approach is increasingly not restricted to the plane; from the check-in desk to the pre-flight bar, Virgin has hired design teams to track the passenger's journey and make it as easy as possible.

Head of this team until earlier this year, where he worked on the company's new line of 787 Dreamliners and the exclusive 'clubhouses' at JFK and Newark, was Luke Miles, who says that brand experience and good design should begin as soon as customers arrive at the airport, and is excited about the possibilities available.

"You could have much more design-thinking in that environment," he says. "It doesn't have to be particularly challenging, it's just about being slightly more sensitive to where people might be emotionally within their journey."

Miles comes from a diverse design background, with a reputation for knowing and empathising with customer needs - from 2000 to 2004 he worked on the airline's on-board upper-class suite before leaving to head design departments at LG and Nokia. He returned to Virgin Atlantic in 2011 with a broad mandate, starting with designing a new head office for the company.

"What is special about the Virgin brand is the people, and we aimed to emphasise that," he says. "We wanted the first resonance of the brand to be through the people, not the room.

"When you enter the Virgin head office, the first thing you see is someone dressed in red against a much more calm white background. We also took this notion to the clubhouses - with the JFK clubhouse, for example, when you walk up to the reception, it's a completely clean, white space."

Test the limits

Of course, there are technical limitations. For all the conceptual thinking brands and designers like Miles can come up with about giving customers an "all-encompassing" travel experience, much of the technical needs of this lie with airports themselves - usually driven by more pragmatic concerns. It is often difficult to control lighting and seating arrangements, and while an airline might want to create an integrated and relaxing travel experience for the customer, the airport will often want to get them in and out as quickly and effectively as possible.

Yet, there are ways for airlines to overcome this, and with technology, they can even continue to communicate with customers as they go through parts of the airport where the brand cannot be physically present. This can be through a well-designed website or even something as simple as a text message - part of Miles's idea of being "picked up" by the brand at various points of the journey, in and out of guided spaces.

"You can let a customer know how long it will take, what's coming next, to keep that dialogue with the brand going," he says. "I think trying to remove the unknown that you inevitably have when you enter an airport can change an experience from a negative to a positive one."

Miles says his team worked hard to understand the importance of certain moments in shaping the customer's journey, particularly when tasked with working on Virgin's London Heathrow presence. From this perspective, Miles and his team noticed that, much of the time, customers at Heathrow would enter through the doors and be presented with a set of Virgin desks with no staff on hand to provide assistance.

"Our research on the customer experience led us to build this totem that gives directions and which stands about 5m tall into the space, manned by two personnel," he explains. "The wonderful thing about that is that it helps Virgin customers as well as other airline customers, which from a brand perspective is incredibly useful."

On the right journey

In all of their airport work, says Miles, the Virgin design team were keen to understand the end-to-end journey psychologically and with a customer perspective, from the first encounter with the brand at check-in to getting on the plane, and identifying "pain points", where passengers are stressed, or have a moment to relax.

One of the most painful points of flying is being screened by airport security, which travellers frequently cite as one of the more stressful aspects of their journey. A well-designed digital experience or good service at the check in desk, Miles argues, can make them feel as though the airline is looking out for them during periods where they might be unhappy.

"I think there's a real moment of truth when you reach the check-in desk, where good customer service can give you the strength to go through security," he argues. "There's a radio silence where you're not in communication with the brand you've bought into, and you're being processed by security - I think people feel the check-in process is highly functional and it needn't be, it can be welcoming."

Miles and his team at Virgin were also fascinated by how customers shaped their own environments and developed spaces for themselves in difference circumstances, and about helping them do it more effectively. Seating areas are a good example, he says, often densely packed in a lot of terminal environments and not well suited to what customers might want to do with the space, whether it is work, leisure or a mixture of the two.

"There generally aren't areas where you can stop, lean and have a moment to yourself," he says. "For example, at a train station, we saw a businessman trying to set up a space where he could have a call, and he created an in-between space for himself.

"It happens on board aircraft a lot, you sort of commandeer an invisible space around yourself; the space that you occupy is somehow greater than yourself. It's like a footprint you own - there's this notion that people want privacy, or they want to be social, or they want to be quiet, and they create the space for it. This idea of people developing their own spaces is quite an elegant notion."

Get on board

When the customer finally arrives on the plane, Virgin wants them to feel welcomed to the brand, to be provided with a calm environment in contrast with the hectic airport environment, says Miles, which was part of his general approach to understanding how customers are feeling at various points during their trip.

"You want to create interplay between those two places and how they relate to one another to emphasise the differences between the two experiences," he says.

Airports should be delighted that Virgin Atlantic and other brands are so invested in enhancing the entire airside experience. They can now prioritise the pragmatic needs of passengers, leaving competing airlines working to win customers over with a more intimate experience tailored to their minute-by-minute needs.

Virgin Atlantic Clubhouse, Newark Airport, US.
A view from above: spacious seating and useful information.

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