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Virgin Atlantic Aims to Bring Style to Israel Travel, Celebrates One Month of Service
Virgin Atlantic became the latest European airline to enter the Israeli market last month when it launched flights between London and Tel Aviv. Going up against Israeli and British airline giants El Al and British Airways, respectively, the airline began service to the Holy Land on Sept. 25 with once-daily service between London’s Heathrow Airport and Tel Aviv’s Ben Gurion International Airport.
The launch of the route not only marks Virgin’s first return to the Middle East since it left Dubai but also its only medium-range route in the airline’s entire route network. At only 1,940 nautical miles, the journey to and from Tel Aviv takes only about 5 hours, with London-Tel Aviv replacing London-Lagos as the airline’s shortest route.
As one of the most vibrant destinations in the Middle East, Tel Aviv is quickly becoming a cultural capital in addition to the primary economic hub of Israel. Tourism to the country is on the rise as both Tel Aviv and Jerusalem have banded together to revitalize the image of the two cities to not appeal to the religious pilgrims, but to all travelers, including the carefree youth.
While its population may be small, the Jewish people that make up the majority of the country’s population have a vast diasporic community which makes up a sizeable chunk of travel to the country, in addition to religious pilgrimages and educational trips. With the Jewish people spread across the world, many find themselves making Aliyah, or a return to Eretz Israel, and often find themselves traveling between their two homelands.
And though the city on the departure board for VS453 says Tel Aviv, Virgin Atlantic is serving the entire State of Israel with its new service. Centrally located between Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, Ben Gurion International Airport is near-equidistant to Israel’s two most visited cities, connected by a single road and soon to be connected by a new high-speed rail line, and is less than a four-hour drive from the most extreme edges of the country’s borders.
Most smaller Israeli cities do not have airports of their own, with the exception of Eilat, making Ben Gurion Airport the primary gateway for the entire country. The airport is also the only one serving the territories of Judea and Samaria, also known as the West Bank, without crossing into a neighboring country.
The launch is the brainchild of Virgin chief executive Shai Weiss, a native of Jerusalem, who joined Sir Richard Branson on a visit to the country last week to celebrate the new route. As Sir Richard disembarked the A330, named Golden Girl and wearing the registration G-VGBR that loosely resembles “Virgin Great Britain,” he kissed the ground in jubilation.
During their visit, Sir Richard and Weiss visited the old port city of Jaffa, directly south of Tel Aviv, to barter with the locals for Virgin Atlantic tickets. Weiss jokingly said to Sir Richard that while he is an experienced businessman, Sir Richard may have met his match with the notoriously strong-willed Israeli people.
Though the Israelis may have got the best of the British entrepreneur, with Sir Richard giving a couple roundtrip Upper Class tickets to London for $300 and another trading partner tickets to London for $45, the practice may have proved beneficial. In entering the busy London-Tel Aviv route, Virgin faces tough competitors from both sides, chief among them being long-time rival British Airways.
The launch of the route is one of the first steps in the airline’s ambitious endeavor to go pound for pound with Britain’s flag carrier at Heathrow Airport, with Virgin calling for the airport’s slot system to be revised to allow for the opportunity to compete on more routes. The two airlines also recently took delivery of their first Airbus A350-100 XWBs, each with new products that they hope to attract more passengers with.
And while opening new fronts in its fight with British Airways, Virgin also has to go up against El Al Israel Airlines, Israel’s 71-year-old flag carrier, and its newest aircraft, the Boeing 787-9 Dreamliner. Low-cost carriers Wizz Air and easyJet, as well as Arkia Israel Airlines, also connect London with Tel Aviv via smaller London area airports.
From the outside, it may seem the cards are stacked up against Virgin Atlantic and its one daily service, but the main differentiating factor separating Virgin from the other airlines serving Israel is style. When debating on flying the youthful Virgin Atlantic to the more traditional El Al or upper-crust British Airways, the appeal of taking Virgin Atlantic to the Holy Land instead of its competitors immediately becomes clear to a certain segment of passengers.
Virgin is widely regarded as a hip and fun airline with unique features such as stylish crew uniforms, a walk-up bar for Upper Class passengers, colorful aircraft interiors and, of course, its flamboyant figurehead Sir Richard Branson. The decision for the airline to serve what is widely regarded as a conservative country may be confusing at first until one gets to know the destination better.
Israel, at its roots, is the ancestral homeland to the Jewish people and birthplace to Judaism. For that reason, the population is thought to consist of only the most orthodox and conservative Jews that follow strict religious traditions, including Shabbat during which the entire country nearly shuts down.
The country, however, has worked tirelessly to become the cultural capital of the Middle East for all, not just its Jewish citizens both in the country and spread across the diaspora. That means shattering the myth of being a closed-off country reserved only for Jews and opening its doors to more visitors, even those with no interest in religion, in an effort to remain relevant to all and attract tourism.
While those staying in the high-rising, Mediterranean Sea-facing hotels on Tel Aviv’s HaYarkon Street may be in the country for religious or educational purposes, the hostels and Airbnbs of the city are most certainly packed with younger travelers looking to indulge in the city’s burgeoning nightlife scene, beaches or historic old cities. The appeal is seemingly working, with the country constantly setting new tourism records.
To the East, Jerusalem is similarly rebounding from a decline in tourism and residency that saw a mass exodus at the beginning in the decade turned completely around with tourism and immigration rates numbers climbing at percentage rates in the double digits.
And to those who say the Old City is too conservative for youngsters, those attending a Halloween-themed rave inside the Old City walls, the recent Eurovision contest or attending Jerusalem’s Festival of Light would disagree.
More than Just Stocking Additional Kosher Meals
In launching service to Israel, the airline decided to do something different in order to understand the Israeli culture of the country centered around the Jewish religion. Before the first flight launched, supervisory members of Virgin in-flight staff, including onboard flight managers, underwent hands-on training in London to learn about Jewish culture and traditions in order to better serve the majority of Jewish passengers on board.
The new service to Israel will have ramifications on nearly all Virgin routes, not just London-Tel Aviv, as the airline will be seeing an influx of Jewish passengers on its transatlantic services heading to the Holy Land. This means stocking Kosher wine on more flights, accommodating praying passengers and respecting the religious traditions and requirements of the Jewish people onboard.
While Virgin cabin crew serve Jewish passengers on every one of its flights, the scale is undoubtedly greater now with the launch of service to Israel. The training will be carried out at the top, with cabin crew managers receiving the training via a classroom setting, and then cabin crew working the flights will receive the training secondhand while working the Tel Aviv flights in addition to computer modules.
The first group of Virgin cabin crew managers to receive the training was brought by an outside consultant to Golders Green, a London suburb with a large Jewish population, to better understand the community. With Virgin entering the market for the first time, the airline wanted to ensure no hiccups or nervousness on the part of the cabin crew.
Despite serving countless foreign countries, most with their own cultures, Virgin currently does not specifically train cabin crew for each culture. In China, for example, the airline uses Hong Kong and Shanghai-based cabin crew who are from the region and understand the culture, passing the knowledge along to their British colleagues.
Israel-bound passengers also create some unique challenges for airport staff as those traveling to the country often do so for extended periods and bring large amounts of baggage. One Delta Air Lines Diamond Medallion who travels frequently between Tel Aviv and New York even remarked that he checked four bags just because he could without paying any checked baggage fees.
Connecting Two Economic Hubs
With Virgin also connecting two economic hubs, London and Tel Aviv, the importance of premium cabins cannot be understated either for business travelers. Virgin’s Airbus A330-300s offer 31-33 seats in business class, depending on the configuration, and the intermediate premium economy section offers 48 seats, the largest out of any airline flying between London and Tel Aviv, according to SeatGuru.
Flying Upper Class from London to Tel Aviv offers unique advantages such as a dedicated check-in area with its own driveway and private security screening lane. Post-security, Upper Class passengers have access to the famed Virgin Atlantic Clubhouse before departure and onboard the aircraft, such amenities include fully lie-flat seats and a walk-up bar.
The flight times also benefit business travelers in both cities due to the late arrivals and early departures of the service. The outbound service to Tel Aviv departs London in the later afternoon, late enough to get a morning of work in. As it’s only around a 5-hour journey across Europe to Israel’s shores, the flight arrives at 9:50 p.m. during daylight savings and 8:50 p.m. when Israel is on standard time.
Though there is a time difference, there is minimal jet lag and business passengers can go from the airport straight to the hotel and wake up the next morning in time for early meetings.
On the return flight to London, the departure time is 7 a.m. While it may seem unforgiving, when factoring in the extra time needed at Ben Gurion Airport for security, it allows business passengers to land back in London before 11 a.m. For Israel-based business travelers, it means arriving in London in time for afternoon meetings.
The Aircraft for the Job
While Virgin’s new Airbus A350-1000 XWB won’t be servicing the new route, the airline’s next best aircraft will be, the Airbus A330-300. The second newest aircraft in the fleet, Virgin’s A330-300s have an average age of 8 years old, according to planespotters.net, and offer a three-class configuration consisting of Upper Class business class, premium economy and economy.
In Upper Class, the A330-300 features up to 33 business class seats in a 1-2-1 or 1-2-1 configuration, depending on which aircraft is used. The fully lie-flat seats offer direct aisle access, a feature that the British Airways’ Boeing 777s operating the route do not feature, and standard amenities including USB charging ports, personal in-flight entertainment touchscreens and 110v AC power outlets.
The next cabin is Premium, a premium economy section that acts as an intermediate product between business class and economy class. The A330-300 features one of the largest premium economy cabins in Virgin’s fleet with 48 recliner seats across 8 rows in a 2-3-2 configuration.
The classic-style large recliner seats feature 38 inches of pitch with 21 inches of width. Standard amenities at the seat include an adjustable headrest, footrest, leg rest, personal in-flight entertainment touchscreen, a tethered remote and a foldable tray table. The seats also come with an amenity kit and headphones.
Separating the Upper Class and Premium cabins is the onboard bar, available exclusively to Upper Class passengers. The three-seat bar offers a reprieve from the standard flight experience, as well as an opportunity for premium passengers to interact.
The final cabin on the aircraft is economy, with 185 seats in total configured in a 2-4-2 configuration. The standard seats feature 31 inches of pitch and 17.5 inches of pitch, as well as amenities such as an adjustable headrest, USB charging ports, audiovisual jacks and personal in-flight entertainment touchscreens.
A full meal service is offered in all cabins, despite the medium-haul duration of the flight. On the outbound flight from London to Tel Aviv, a dinner service is offered while on the morning return flight, breakfast is served.
WiFi is also offered on board the aircraft across the three cabins with service by Gogo Inflight Internet. The service includes packages for WiFi as well as individual messaging and e-mail packages.
Connections from the U.K. and North America
Though only offering once-daily service, the flights are ideally timed for both U.K. originating visitors to Israel and those coming in from points across the Atlantic. Out of Virgin’s 11 destinations in the U.S., 10 offer connections to Tel Aviv, with the onward flight departing in the early afternoon after the morning arrivals from the U.S.
The main focus cities in the U.S. for Israeli connections are those with large diasporic Jewish communities, including New York, Miami and Los Angeles, and also tech cities including San Francisco. The Northeastern U.S. cities, however, get the short end of the stick as even the latest departures arrive in London early in the morning, extending layover times at Heathrow Airport.
On the return, connection times are more forgiving as the early morning departure from Tel Aviv allows connections to the afternoon departures bound for the U.S. The typical layover at Heathrow Airport for those traveling in the westbound direction is approximately 2 hours.
Upper Class passengers transiting through London can enjoy the layover in the Virgin Atlantic Clubhouse in Terminal 3. The flagship lounge offers amenities such as a full-service bar, restaurant-style ordering when dining and complimentary spa treatments.
For AvGeeks, the clubhouse also offers a garden area with views of the adjacent ramp and nearby Runway 27L, as well as the Heathrow Airport air traffic control tower. Aircraft from varying airlines including Virgin Atlantic, Delta Air Lines, Finnair, American Airlines and British Airways can be spotted here.
Travelers originating or terminating in New York also get to fly on Virgin Atlantic’s newest aircraft, the Airbus A350-1000 XWB. The ultra-modern aircraft features new products in every cabin with new onboard amenities such as high-definition in-flight entertainment options including exterior camera, dine on-demand in business class and a new social area called The Loft.
Virgin’s codeshare partners Delta Air Lines and Aeromexico also benefit from the new service by offering passengers London as an additional connecting city beyond the main connecting points of New York – where Delta Air Lines offers its only nonstop flight to Tel Aviv – Amsterdam and Paris.
Regional connections will also be offered by Virgin’s newest acquisition of Flybe, or Virgin Connect as it’s now called. The airline will allow one-stop connections from some smaller cities in the United Kingdom to Tel Aviv through Heathrow including Aberdeen, Edinburgh, Guernsey and Newquay.
Come, The New Jerusalem
As Israel continues its image transformation from a conservative religious state to an inclusive destination for all, Virgin Atlantic offers a stylish and new wave alternative to the traditional stale carriers servicing the Jewish state. The investment in Israel seems to be paying off for the airline as the service is already seeing loads over 90 percent and multiple sold-out flights per week.
Though an exciting time for Israel, the new route is just the first in an expansion that is seeing Virgin launch new international service to India and Brazil, as well as get comfortable in its latest aircraft, the Airbus A350-1000 XWB. Should the British government open up slot restrictions on Heathrow, British Airways can expect to be competing harder on more of its most popular routes.
An earlier version of the article incorrectly stated that London-Boston was Virgin Atlantic’s shortest route
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