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Leading Through Turbulence: Virgin Atlantic’s CEO Centers on ESG and Technology Innovation for Growth

A conversation with Shai Weiss, CEO of Virgin Atlantic
April 2024

Shai Weiss Shai Weiss’s hope for the next year is that Virgin Atlantic, the airline that he leads as CEO, will no longer feel the need to compare its current performance with that of pre-pandemic times. “We’ll just be looking forward and thinking how to be even better,” he told us in an interview in early 2024. “Virgin Atlantic 2025 versus 2024.”

The sentiment highlights both the challenges Weiss and Virgin Atlantic have faced and their immense achievements. After a near complete halt in business in April 2020, Virgin Atlantic has not only stayed afloat, but it has transformed how it operates while embracing a leadership role in technological innovation and ESG — all while staying aligned with its purpose “to empower everyone to take on the world” and maintaining one of the world’s most recognizable brands.

To learn more about this journey through the past few years, Spencer Stuart’s Jason Hancock and Will House recently sat down with Weiss in London for a wide-ranging interview about the leadership challenges Weiss faced in helping the company navigate through it all. The transcript below has been edited for brevity.


Tell us about your journey, and Virgin Atlantic’s journey, through the pandemic. How was the company able to survive?

Shai Weiss: Well, we could spend a whole day telling our pandemic story. To set the scene, for 90 days starting in April 2020, we flew zero passengers, and 95 percent of our revenues evaporated overnight. Not many other businesses in the world faced that level of dislocation so rapidly.

So, what got us through the pandemic? For Virgin, the differentiator is and has always been our people. In a company and industry of this nature, you wouldn’t naturally start there. You might say you have the best assets, or you’re the largest, or you have a monopoly, or any number of other things you’ve learned in business school that gives a corporation an enduring advantage. But for Virgin Atlantic, the secret sauce, our unique advantage, is our people.

So, what got us through the pandemic? For Virgin, the differentiator is and has always been our people.”

All of us were united by a singular and simple mission: ensuring the survival of Virgin Atlantic and saving as many jobs as possible. That was it. It didn't take a very long time to define it — nor should it have. In many ways, it was the most galvanizing moment we've ever felt, and possibly will ever feel. Everybody knew the mission, talked about the mission, lived the mission, and went for it. We organized ourselves accordingly. Everyone did everything they could do to help the company, and importantly they were empowered and trusted to act — hundreds, thousands of people involved in millions of decisions and actions. Their entrepreneurial drive, their desire to think out of the box, acting like owners to get it done and make it count.

In the end, outcomes are determined by the sum of many small decisions, but to succeed you must, of course, also get the big stuff right. In the main, I think we did get it right.


How did the pandemic change your approach to leadership?

Shai Weiss: I've learned to trust. One of the principles I follow is, "Build your team with the best and only the best.” I learned how important it is to have a team you trust and then, crucially, to trust them to focus on what really matters. Two years ago when I confronted cancer, I knew Virgin Atlantic was in safe hands; I trusted my team and our people to do everything they could to ensure that Virgin Atlantic would continue to recover and keep the show in the air. How I’ve managed my personal challenge is very much shaped by what I learned during the pandemic. I’m fortunate that I get to work for a company that cares and is led by — and again, I know this sounds like a cliche — our people who go the extra mile. They are the secret sauce that sets us apart.


You’ve recently launched your Recipe for Leadership. Why and what is it?

Shai Weiss: Last year I was challenged by a person who knows me well to distill my leadership principles and beliefs into something simple and intuitive that would connect with our people. Something that would create a common language and set of behaviors to help our leaders succeed in achieving our collective mission of becoming the most loved travel company and sustainably profitable.

Other businesses, like Nike and Amazon, have their own brilliant and famous manifestos, but this is ours. It attempts to distill what it means to be a Virgin Atlantic leader. It’s a recipe 30 years in the making, shaped by more than a decade at Virgin Atlantic and more than five years as CEO, by observing, studying, and refining ideas from leaders both inside and outside the company. These are 20 “ingredients” we can all live by, starting by acknowledging that we can’t be good at everything all the time. That’s not the point, really. I hope that the recipe inspires our leaders, to reflect, learn and ultimately thrive to become even better leaders.


Shifting a bit to the airline industry, how has technology changed it? Where do you think airlines are headed in this regard?

Shai Weiss: The good news is that airlines won’t be replaced by technology. That said, airlines have a long way to go on tech. When you think about advances in personalization, next-best action, pricing and customer service, it’s clear that technology and the emerging AI revolution will be transformative. Machine learning, large language models and AI as a catch-all present tremendous opportunities for revenue growth, reducing costs and enhancing service, all of which will make us better.

We are a consumer-facing, branded, premium lifestyle company now, and we encompass so much more than just taking you from point A to B. ... And through that lens, inspiration is everywhere.”

For Virgin Atlantic specifically, as a mid-size company, if everything comes to fruition, it will allow us to overcome scale disadvantages and use technology to go even further. Even if technology costs go up, the ability to do things more effectively and efficiently will provide exponential benefits. Technology will help us keep innovating to provide a tremendous customer experience. The future will be in personalization, offering services to you based on your needs, desires and what’s important to you in the moment — anticipating rather than responding. We shouldn’t have to ask you what’s your favorite seat in our famous Club House or on the plane, or what meal you want. We have so much data already that we aren’t using to make our customers smile. I see this as a tremendous opportunity for the aviation and travel industries and, of course, Virgin Atlantic.

Richard Branson and the Virgin Group are powered by a belief that business should be a force for good, and we pride ourselves on being leaders in sustainability. Technology is crucial to our decarbonization efforts. Aviation is one of seven “hard-to-abate” industries in terms of decarbonization, and in October 2021 we published our “Line in the Sand” manifesto which set out our commitment to sustainability and the steps we would take to rise to the challenge.

There are two key levers to pull for the airline industry. First, all airlines need to operate younger fleets. The current generation of planes reduces emissions by 10 to 30 percent. We’ve already reduced our emissions significantly over the last decade by investing billions in the youngest fleet across the Atlantic, and we are not stopping; our fleet will be 100 percent new generation by the end of 2028. Already we have seen the benefits of this; in the decade before 2022, we reduced our emissions by about 35 percent.

And secondly, new, sustainable fuels are required to get to net-zero. Sustainable Aviation Fuel (SAF) already reduces life-cycle emissions by up to 70 percent compared to standard fuels. These sustainable fuels must be developed and then produced at scale if we are going to reduce life-cycle emissions.

In November of 2023, we flew the world’s first 100 percent SAF flight from London to New York as part of a competition launched by the UK Department for Transportation. We demonstrated SAF as a safe drop-in replacement for standard jet fuel, compatible with today’s engines, airframes, and fuel infrastructure. To get there required radical collaboration; we couldn’t do it on our own. We needed Rolls-Royce, Boeing, the Rocky Mountain Institute, Imperial College, Sheffield University, and on and on to make this thing happen. With only one-tenth of one percent of aviation fuel made sustainably today, there remains so much more to be done by governments, oil companies, airlines, and investors if we are to meet our objective of flying 10 percent SAF by 2030.

But, simply said, we’ve proven that if you make it, we’ll fly it.


Let’s talk about that phrase, “radical collaboration.” From a leadership perspective, how did that happen?

Shai Weiss: Safety and security are of course our top priority, and while I know people say that all the time, it really felt critical here. Yes, in many ways this was just a normal 787 taking off on a fuel that is basically the same fuel you always use, just made sustainably. We assumed the lead position uniting our partners to radically collaborate and prove that we can safely fly with 100 percent SAF. It was essential that everything we did was documented, above board and certified by all parties.

Finding the way to decarbonize aviation is bigger than any one of us on our own. Therefore, if we or anyone else achieves a breakthrough, finds something, or does something, it should benefit everyone. In May 2024, we will host an open-source symposium, where our team will share our findings, the data, and the learnings, and help others lean in.


What organizations, institutions, associations or companies do you look at and hope to emulate? Or are you more focused on innovation and developing ideas from within?

Shai Weiss: As a mid-sized airline, we understand that we shouldn’t do everything ourselves. Recipe 5 in the Recipe for Leadership is “Partnerships power our success and allow us to overcome scale limitations.” We’re proud to partner with the best. We are a founding member of the leading joint venture with Delta Air Lines and Air France KLM, and our loyalty program is enhanced through collaboration with Virgin Red, the inter-company loyalty ecosystem.

But the things that we do must be done in a purposeful and meaningful way, to help us achieve our goal of being the “most loved travel company.” After all, as our ad says, “we see the world differently.” We are a consumer-facing, branded, premium lifestyle company now, and we encompass so much more than just taking you from point A to B. Rather, it’s about playing in the wonderful world of travel, hospitality, and entertainment. And through that lens, inspiration is everywhere.

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