Virgin’s Israeli boss: Mass passenger testing can ease travel restrictions
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Virgin’s Israeli boss: Mass passenger testing can ease travel restrictions

Candice Krieger speaks to Virgin Atlantic chief executive officer Shai Weiss about how the company has fared during the coronavirus pandemic and what it now hopes to achieve

Virgin Atlantic boss Shai Weiss in conversation with the airline’s founder Richard Branson
Virgin Atlantic boss Shai Weiss in conversation with the airline’s founder Richard Branson

Virgin Atlantic boss Shai Weiss says the airline could soon be flying to Israel twice a day, possibly as soon as next month, despite
the pandemic.

In an interview with Jewish News, chief executive Weiss, who is himself Israeli, says:  “We are proud to be flying back to Tel Aviv. We are flying three times a week and hope to move to twice daily in November, or maybe the new year, depending on developments on both sides of the Mediterranean.”

Virgin started flying daily to Ben Gurion  a year ago, but flights ground to a halt in March when Covid-19 took hold. After a pause, the airline launched cargo-only flights carrying essential supplies between the  two countries. Passenger flights between London Heathrow and Ben Gurion resumed last month, as Weiss puts it, in time for Rosh Hashanah.

Israel is the first country to have a second full lockdown and, at the time of writing, people arriving there from “red countries” with high coronavirus rates have to quarantine for 14 days. And while 2020 hasn’t been the year Virgin Atlantic planned, its commitment to the Israeli market remains steadfast. 

Branson touches down in Tel Aviv with Weiss after Virgin’s launch flight in 2019

Weiss, who has been at Virgin Atlantic for six years – and at the helm since January 2019 – has watched the sector in which he works get destroyed by the pandemic,  as national governments moved to curtail travel to safeguard public health. For 90 days, Virgin Atlantic did not fly one
passenger. Weiss has been leading the call for the government introduction of mass passenger testing (pre-departure and post-arrival) in order to relax travel restrictions, remove quarantine and get people, and the economy, moving again. 

We are proud to be flying back to Tel Aviv. We are flying three times a week and hope to move to twice daily in November, or maybe the new year, depending on developments on both sides of the Mediterranean

 “Without mass testing – though not diverting away from the NHS and front-line staff – the economic recovery of the UK will not take off in its time of need. 

“We now expect to be in recession in Q4 and, with an extended recession period that will probably go into next year, the economy needs everything and travel is an essential piece. Five hundred thousand  jobs in the UK are at risk without action.”

He says the technology for testing is emerging. “We are now looking at trials  at what we can do for our crews, people and passengers.”

Israeli-born Shai, pictured with Branson, has worked at Virgin Atlantic for six years

He is also calling for a London-New York and New Jersey corridor to be opened up, if the aviation industry and UK economy is to recover.  

“The government has had some success with corridors. I understand why the government wanted to talk about islands, but we need to differentiate between New York and New Jersey, and other places now exhibiting rates of infection that are lower than the UK and Europe more broadly, so quarantine can be removed and movement resumed, because the importation of infection is unlikely, especially if you introduce robust testing.”

We now expect to be in recession in Q4 and, with an extended recession period that will probably go into next year, the economy needs everything and travel is an essential piece. Five hundred thousand  jobs in the UK are at risk without action

Transatlantic flying represents 70 percent of Virgin Atlantic’s network. “It’s such a significant contributor for the UK economy. We should take the first step and say that on arrival from New York and New Jersey – and if you show that you are a resident of New York or New Jersey – you can come into the UK. If we do that, the US will probably open up the reverse.”

 Last month, Virgin Atlantic achieved what many thought impossible with the  £1.2 billion private-only solvent recapitalisation of the airline and holiday business – taking the company a step closer to securing its survival. 

Shai Weiss

 Weiss says the period leading up to the restructuring has been the most challenging he has ever faced professionally. He describes it as “humbling and devastating”.

 “This has impacted the livelihood of so many, and Virgin Atlantic is no different. Aviation was one of the first and deepest to be impacted and will probably be one of the last to emerge from the crisis. We suspended flying on 1 February, but little did we know how severe, impactful and lengthy this crisis would be. 

Without mass testing – though not diverting away from the NHS and front-line staff – the economic recovery of the UK will not take off in its time of need

“It’s been humbling because, in response to the crisis, the company, the team, the shareholders achieved what many thought impossible.” 

 Virgin, which was on track to return to profitability before the crisis, has had to cut nearly half its pre-pandemic workforce of 10,000 people. 

 Was there a time he thought Virgin Atlantic might not survive? “Of course, there were days I doubted whether we could achieve everything. This was a very complex process. But my job is to wake up in the morning, dust myself down and start all over again. Yes there were moments of doubt, but not ones that clouded my conviction or belief to get it done.” 

 He adds: “We have taken a huge step forward, but the fight for survival for many companies in response to the pandemic continues.”

 Outside of discussing the crisis, Weiss found the time to wish the Jewish community a Shana Tova. He says: “Internally, I have used the phrase that we would like to be a head and not a tail, and it is ever more relevant this year. We intend to lead from the front and manage our destiny from the things we can control and supporting the things that we do not.” 

 Based in London, Weiss, a self-described long-suffering Arsenal fan, holds an MBA from Columbia University and BBA from City University of New York, Baruch College.

Before joining the Virgin Group, he held several senior management positions at NTL:Telewest (now Virgin Media). Prior to NTL, he established the European office of early-stage technology venture fund JVP and was a senior associate with Morgan Stanley. He also serves as a non-executive director of Checkpoint Software Technologies. 

Virgin Atlantic staff

 He regularly reads The New Yorker magazine from cover to cover and attempts to play basketball.  

Weiss is particularly proud of Virgin Atlantic’s UK-Israel route, which has been extremely successful since its launch. He reels off some impressive stats: there are 300-4,000 flying club members and the route is consistently in the top five in terms of customer satisfaction. The route is also popular for its connectivity to the US – about 80percent are point to point with about 20-30 percent moving onwards to the US, and from the US. 

 “I think people now appreciate what we stand for. It’s a route our people love to serve. All the cultural training we did a year and a half ago in preparation served us well and is a blueprint for what we are doing for Pakistan.” The company recently announced it will be flying from the UK to Lahore and Islamabad from December.  

 Looking ahead, he expects travel in 2021 to be at 50 percent of what it was in 2019 and doesn’t expect passenger volume to return to pre-pandemic levels until 2023. 

“But I hope and expect that, with the introduction of a vaccine and improvements in treatment, the new year next year will be a better year than this one.” Amen to that. 

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