Opinion

Virgin Atlantic CEO inspired by Richard Branson to think of planes as “test labs”

6 min read

10 November 2015

Former deputy editor

If you’re about to travel, hearing that your plane is considered a “test lab” could be cause for alarm. However, Virgin Atlantic CEO Craig Creeger feels this innovation is providing the airline’s customers with enhanced experiences – and it was Richard Branson that inspired his approach.

The announcement was made at Microsoft Future Decoded, which is being held at the ExCel London. Ahead of the Technical Day on 11 November, the Business Day is taking place on 10 November, which saw Virgin Atlantic CEO Craig Creeger take to the stage as a speaker.

As you would expect from the leader of a business founded by billionaire mogul Richard Branson, Creeger had some interesting attitudes towards innovations.

He explained that Virgin Atlantic staff members “are at the heart of taking care of customers” and when the topic of innovation arises, it’s to determine how those ideas can better support the teams to, in turn, better support consumers.

“If I can provide our people with better information to engage with customers, I can enhance the experience,” said Creeger, revealing that passengers appreciate the post-flight dialogue with staff ahead of other airlines, due to the personalised responses.

“The idea of using tech, to make things better, is the right way to think about innovation,” he added.

One example he drew upon was from one year ago, when the company live streamed a concert to the aircraft to create a party atmosphere on the flight, which he considered “a great way to use connectedness and aircraft capabilities for customers”.

Elsewhere, in keeping with the approaching festive season, Virgin teamed with Microsoft in December 2014 to provide a visit from Father Christmas. Passengers were provided with free Windows tablets before take-off, allowing the users to track the whereabouts of Santa.

Meanwhile, holographic tech was used to create the illusion that Santa had landed on top of the plane, before the big man himself entered the plane to surprise travellers young and old. According to Creeger, the move “created a community on the plane”.

Check out the video below.

The chief highlighted some key words from Branson – “Screw it, let’s do it.”

Read more on Richard Branson:

Explaining that philosophy was one he wanted to embrace, Creeger said that one of his challenges – as a company with £2.7bn revenue – was to think: “How can we create confidence in trying things that don’t work?”

He said: “We have 39 planes – that’s 39 test labs in my mind. That’s a great opportunity to try stuff and see what works.”

With that concept, Creeger noted that having “a willingness to fail active in the company is a key element that can enable us to be truly successful” as positive test lab results could be scaled quite easily.

Upon joining the company three years ago, he said he and the team recognised that there needed to be more innovation within the business. But while the idea of innovation often has an edgy interpretation, it actually needs structure, as Creeger realised on the back of his goal to introduce one innovation a month.

“Telling people to innovate just doesn’t create great innovation – so one a month didn’t materialise into much,” he detailed. “Innovation actually requires structure. If I put a person in a dark room they’ll probably think of stuff. But innovation needs structures and a purpose. What are we trying to do? Great innovation starts with a question that inspires people.”

He used the example of the upper class cabin’s beds, which started with – can’t we make this chair feel more like a bed?

With tech in mind, the airline also used a smartwatch and Google Glass to provide more customer interaction to help with the check-in process.

“We asked ourselves how to get check-in personnel from behind a computer and desk to let them have info, but not be tied to physical device that creates a wall,” said Creeger.

Interestingly, Google Glass worked well – but, of course, the product has been retired at Google’s end for the time being. The smartwatch wasn’t successful though, as removing eye contact to start looking at the watch came across as rude.

He said that things may change as smartwatches become more commonplace, but checking your watch is currently still “the universal symbol for I’m bored with you. It created a different kind of wall.”

When conducting research, Virgin Atlantic found one area that consumers dislike is the gate holding area, which Creeger said doesn’t even sound customer-friendly.

The team spoke about making it more fun and the best outcome was simply not to put customers there. As such, travellers are now called to board at the gate slightly later and arrive at a gradual pace to prevent unwanted waiting in a bland room, which Creeger revealed has made customers happier and boarding scores rise by 25 per cent.

Closing on innovation, he said there are two key elements. “Be willing to fail and ask lots of questions. Try stuff and scale quickly.”