Phil Maher, Director of Engineering for Virgin Atlantic Upper class engineering
Trent 500 engines on an A340-600 at Virgin’s maintenance base at London’s Heathrow Airport Upper class engineering

Upper class engineering

'When we innovate we tend to shift the market,' says Phil Maher, Director of Engineering for Virgin Atlantic. 

At Virgin we change perceptions about what is possible in the air, in terms of both product and service,' claims Phil. He heads the 850-strong engineering function at Virgin Atlantic and it is his team that leads the project management for the introduction of any new aircraft into the fleet – not just from an engineering and maintenance perspective – but right across the airline, including crew and passenger experience to ensure a successful entry into service. 

Virgin believes that the flight is only part of the customer's relationship with the airline and that the whole journey, from when a customer sets out for the airport until they arrive at their destination, is one that Virgin can influence if they look at it holistically.  

'On the ground we can make it special and make improvements quite quickly for our passengers, however, on an aircraft making major changes fast is more difficult. It needs to be planned. Right now we are in a period of investing for future growth, we are adding aircraft to the fleet and expanding our routes. When we look at the next two-three years there's a lot going on, in terms of hard product upgrades to our Boeing 747 fleet with new seats and IFE (in-flight entertainment), and we are focusing on service too as you would expect.'

This year Virgin has been progressively receiving Trent 700-powered Airbus A330s, the first time the airline has flown 'big twins'. The first two aircraft took flights on the routes from Manchester and Gatwick to Orlando in the US. The start of operation has been seamless. It also marked a change of philosophy for the airline as it moved from flying long-haul with four-engined aircraft only, to twin-engine power with ETOPS (extended twin-engined operations).  

There are five A330s due in 2011, which will be in a two-class configuration and a further five next year which will have three classes. With the three-class set up the airline is considering employing the new aircraft on the routes to the Caribbean and to the east coast of America.

The A330s are the latest Rolls-Royce powered aircraft to enter the fleet. Virgin is already a major employer of Trent 500 engine power with 19 Airbus A340-600s currently in service, all under TotalCare® service contracts with Rolls-Royce. Looking further ahead, the airline has 15 Boeing 787 Dreamliners on order with Trent 1000 engines. Virgin has also ordered six Airbus A380s with Trent 900s, due for delivery from 2015 onwards.

Still under wraps is the new Upper Class seat which will feature on the A330 aircraft arriving in 2012. 'We are at an advanced stage in the certification and production of the new seat and I know that it is ground-breaking, a truly innovative product that is surrounded by a suite of additional new products such as a new bar, new food and sophisticated IFE and media,' says Phil. 'We worked with our IFE partner, Panasonic, to develop new screens that work similarly to an iPad and these are already on the existing A330s. The passengers are enthralled, so much that we have noticed a drop in beverage and food requests because they are playing on the system.' There will be a refurbishment and rollout of the same standards across the Boeing 747-400 fleet and there is new investment being aimed at the Virgin lounges in New York and Los Angeles.

Investment

With continuing high fuel prices, pressure on ticket pricing and recent disruptive events such as volcanic eruptions, all affecting business and yield, it might seem an unusual time for an airline to be driving change and investment on such a scale. 'It is partly cyclical,' confirms Phil. 'We would be making changes now anyway to stay competitive.'

Virgin was expecting delivery of the Boeing 787 in 2011 and had planned much of its development work around this. It won't arrive until 2014 now, but the product development was already in the pipeline so they realigned some of it for the arrival of the A330s which have been acquired as a result of the delay to the Boeing 787 programme.

'We were planning to refurbish some of our existing fleet in 2009, but deferred the decision as a result of the global downturn. We also took the decision to retain our Boeing 747s in service until around 2017-18 and so it makes sense for us to invest in these aircraft too as they will be with us over the next six years,' says Phil. So a combination of factors has resulted in the work going on today. Virgin also feels being progressive is in its DNA and recognises it is this that differentiates them from the competition.

If that was not enough to keep the engineering team fully occupied, they are also already actively planning for the introduction of the new Boeing 787. Even though the aircraft's arrival is three years away, Virgin has started its joint training programme with Boeing and will continue to work with the airframer up until the introduction of the aircraft.

'It's a fantastic aircraft and we have selected Rolls-Royce Trent 1000 engines to power it so we know we have a great package,' says Phil.

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