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Virgin Atlantic has announced that its Flying Club loyalty program is following in the footsteps of the British Airways Executive Club and, with immediate effect, will release a minimum number of Economy Class, Premium Economy, and Business Class awards on every flight that it operates as soon as flights are loaded in the reservation systems. For fans of Virgin Atlantic, this will sound like good news but the harsh reality remains – this move doesn’t go far enough.
Over the past 24 hours, Virgin Atlantic has been emailing the members of its Flying Club to give them the good news:
“From today, we guarantee a minimum of twelve reward seats on every Virgin Atlantic flight. Just decide when and where you want to fly, search using points and away you go.”
These twelve “reward seats” are broken down as follows:
- 8 Economy Class seats
- 2 Premium Economy seats
- 2 Business Class (Upper Class) seats
Overnight we have seen a huge dump of award availability on the Virgin Atlantic website and going forward, these guaranteed award seats will be made available as flights are added to the Virgin Atlantic reservations system (331 days out).
This is a good and long overdue improvement from an airline for which I have great fondness because, frankly, Flying Club Points have been almost unusable for premium cabin travel on Virgin Atlantic for a disappointingly long time.
Unfortunately, this move isn’t really the big news that Virgin Atlantic wants it to be and it’s not an enhancement that’s really going to move the needle on the value of Flying Club points.
Yes, it’s great that those of us who love to plan trips 11 months out and who have flexible schedules (that would be me) will now have at least half a chance of booking a Virgin Atlantic Business Class award if we want to. No one is disputing this. The problem is that this announcement doesn’t go far enough.
While this is a move in the right direction, it’s important to keep in mind that British Airways already releases 14 award seats for every long-haul flight that it operates – 4 in Business Class, 2 in Premium Economy, and 8 in Economy Class – so Virgin isn’t even matching what its biggest competitor offers.
When your biggest competitor can offer passengers a considerably larger long-haul network, an infinitely larger short-haul network (Virgin doesn’t offer short-haul flights), and a currency that’s a lot more flexible than your own, you have to at least match what that competitor is offering (where possible) if you genuinely want to be taken seriously.
Sure, Virgin Atlantic’s long-haul Business Class cabins are, generally, smaller than those of British Airways so you could argue that it can’t match BA’s guarantee of 4 Business Class awards on every flight…so it needs to find another way to compete. Perhaps offer more Premium Economy awards or, better yet, address the biggest elephant in the room…
A key thing to keep in mind here is that this new policy only affects Virgin Atlantic’s own flights (it doesn’t include partner bookings) so one of the biggest obstacles to using Flying Club points remains – flyers are still being asked to pay outrageous surcharges when they book Virgin Atlantic premium cabin awards.
If you want to fly one way from London to NYC in Business Class during off-peak season you would be asked to part with 47,500 points and £627.06 (~$760) in surcharges.
If you want to turn that into a roundtrip booking, it will cost you 95,000 points and £997.76 (~$1,210) in surcharges.
If you think that’s bad, take a look at what happens if you’re originating in the United States:
For a one-way award booking from NYC to London in Business Class during off-peak season, you would be asked to part with 47,500 points and $875.30 in surcharges.
For a roundtrip booking between NYC and London in Business Class during off-peak season, Virgin Atlantic will charge a staggering $2,064.37 in surcharges on top of the 95,000 points that it also wants.
I’ve seen cash fares that cost less than the surcharges that Virgin Atlantic likes to charge!
Virgin Atlantic is tinkering around the edges at the moment and despite what I’m sure it believes is a big flyer-friendly move, using Virgin Atlantic Flying Club Points to book Virgin Atlantic awards remains (mostly) a poor value option.
The latest announcement doesn’t add value. It simply means that people will now find it a little easier to find premium cabin award availability on Virgin’s network and will therefore find it a little easier to pay Virgin Atlantic some truly outrageous surcharges. I’m not sure we can really classify this as a “good thing”.
I’m sure that fans of Flying Club will point out that since 1 September 2020, Virgin Atlantic has awarded Tier Points for award bookings and will say that this should be factored in alongside the news that awards will now be easier to book but while I agree with them to a degree, I don’t think that moves the needle enough to make a serious difference. The surcharges are value killers.
The fact remains that Virgin Atlantic points continue to be best used for select Delta short-haul awards…
…for Delta One award for travel between the US and Europe (excluding the UK)…
…and best of all, for ANA Business and First Class awards.
This is because the number of points needed to book these awards is relatively low and the taxes/fees/surcharges that accompany them are either low or negligible.
Why waste Virgin Atlantic points on awards that attract huge surcharges when you can use them on awards such as the ones above?
Remember: Just because something becomes more accessible doesn’t necessarily make it more useful, valuable, or desirable and that’s the issue facing Flying Club awards.
If Virgin Atlantic really wanted to make a difference and wanted to make its currency considerably more attractive and useable on its own flights, it would have done something about the surcharges that it charges.
Truly “brilliant news” (as Virgin labeled its announcement) would include a promise to release a set number of award seats across all cabins and a promise to slash the surcharges that are currently charged. The airline wouldn’t even have to do away with surcharges altogether to make a big difference – just making them reasonable in comparison to other carriers (not including BA!) would probably be enough.
Sadly, that idea appears to have been a little too revolutionary for Shai Weiss and Co. over at Virgin Atlantic HQ so for those of us deeply immersed in the miles & points world nothing much has changed – the best and most economic uses of Flying Club miles continue to be for bookings on Virgin’s partners and not for bookings on Virgin Atlantic itself…even though those awards just got easier to find.
Virgin Atlantic has announced that going forward, it will release a minimum of 12 award seats on all flights that it operates but while it’s good to see that the airline is looking at ways to improve its loyalty offering, this really isn’t the big news that the airline wants us all to think that it is.
If Virgin Atlantic wants its currency to be competitive and attractive it needs to be better and more useable than what its larger competitor(s) offer (a bit like how Hyatt has to keep its loyalty program better than the programs that the bigger hotel chains offer) but as things stand, that’s simply not the case.
I love Virgin Atlantic, but I really don’t love its surcharges and until they are dealt with, the value proposition of the airline’s currency will not change.