Richard Branson’s Virgin Atlantic has summoned its entire crew of 280 beauty therapists to a meeting this week, sparking speculation that the airline is planning to downsize or even scrap its in-flight manicure and massage service. Like all airlines, Virgin Atlantic is feeling the squeeze from soaring fuel costs, and some think it will be forced to cut down on the perks it offers to its Upper Class passengers.
Of course Virgin isn’t admitting as much, saying only that it is getting the therapists in ‘to speak to them as part of a review of the Upper Class products and services we offer.’ It claims the meeting is just part of a scheduled overhaul of its various treatments, which include the ‘Back in the Clouds’ back massage, the ‘Handsome Hands’ mini-manicure (incorporating a file, buff and cuticle work, in case you were wondering) and the ‘Hot Hands’ exfoliation. Economy passengers will no doubt be wondering how they’ve ever managed to get through a flight without one.
Virgin finds itself in a tough situation. It’s operating in a very difficult environment: costs are soaring just as consumer spending appears to be slowing, while competition has never been more fierce – particularly with the recent advent of the ‘open skies’ agreement that allows other carriers to fly from Heathrow to the US. You couldn't blame the airline for trying to cut costs to preserve its margins, and in that instance free manicures would seem an obvious choice.
However, these little quirks have been a huge part of Virgin’s success. In addition to the beauty therapy (on offer since 1990), Upper Class also provides travellers with perks like complimentary limo transfer, drive-through check-in and luxurious lounges, allowing Virgin to position it as somewhere between first- and business-class travel – and this kind of premium service is one of the main reasons it’s been able to compete successfully with bigger rivals like BA. If getting rid of the therapists erodes some of its competitive advantage, it could turn out to be a very expensive mistake.
Still, we wouldn’t be surprised to see the service quietly reduced over the next year or so. Some of our well-heeled colleagues tell us that it’s hard enough to get your hands on a therapist (or should that be vice-versa?) as it is – by this time next year, it might be almost impossible...