Virgin Australia seeks to seize on Qantas’ stumbles

One of Virgin Australia’s most senior executives has signalled the number two airline plans to directly challenge rival Qantas on customer service and on-time performance of flights, as it looks to seize on the dominant carrier’s recent stumbles.

In his first major interview since defecting from Qantas, the chief executive of Virgin’s Velocity loyalty program, Nick Rohrlach, told The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age the number two carrier would seek to deliver service with a “big smile” in a sign it is willing to attack its main rival’s historic core strength.

Virgin, which fell into administration during the COVID-19 pandemic before being acquired by US private equity giant Bain Capital in 2020, has attempted to reposition itself as a domestic-focused mid-market carrier (a “Goldilocks” airline Rohrlach says), with prices and customer service typically sitting below premium operator Qantas but above low-cost carriers such as Jetstar and Scoot.

Velocity chief executive Nick Rohrlach has a plan to unseat Qantas.Credit:Rhett Wyman

Airlines around the world have been struggling to cope with surging demand for flights as pandemic restrictions abate and borders reopen. Qantas has been hit particularly hard, with a wave of customer service complaints in recent weeks due to cancelled flights, lost baggage and lengthy queues as it attempts to re-staff its workforce.

But Rohrlach said, in contrast to reports of Qantas customer service calls stretching into multiple hours, Virgin’s average call wait time is just three minutes. “I would much rather our members remember that,” he said. “If you have great service at a great price, that will build the brand loyalty and the brand preference over the long term.“

Rohrlach, who is only nine months into the job, believes Virgin hasn’t received enough recognition for its efforts to simplify and reinvent itself since CEO Jayne Hrdlicka took the helm in late 2020.

“[Joining Virgin] was a great opportunity to rebuild a great airline and a great brand that wasn’t necessarily a great business,” he said.

He acknowledged the carrier still had some way to go and it had been “a tough few years” for the once ASX-listed company. “But you look at the goals we’ve been hitting … It’s a new airline now. I don’t think people have fully noticed that.”

An independent study conducted last year showed Virgin’s economy airfares are about 70 per cent better value than they were before COVID.

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