How Virgin Atlantic used design thinking to raise the bar at Heathrow

August 21, 2015 The Architech Team

Is there anything better than traveling? No. The answer is no. Yanking yourself out of the daily grind to explore a new terrain, sample local cuisine, and remember what it’s like to feel really alive again ranks as one of life’s great pleasures.

But every joy comes with a price and in the case of traveling it’s the migraine-inducing frustration of airports. Between the crowds, lines, security probing us for homemade explosives, zero-star food at 5-star prices, fluorescent lighting, and general logistical confusion, the average economy class airport experience carries similar enjoyment to unanesthetized dental surgery or final exams.

Precious little has been done to improve things. It’s become a reality that those of us lucky enough to travel have accepted as part of our good fortune. Despite this acceptance, certain airports still manage to evoke a particular sense of doom. Chief among the lot is Heathrow, London’s international travel hub and, due to its place at the center of the Mercator, one of the busiest places on earth.

Virgin Atlantic

Virgin Atlantic, the airline component of the global brand known for its good humour and excellent customer service, saw Heathrow as the perfect testing ground for design thinking. Many will have heard of this example, but as one of the great case studies in the field it bears repeating. In 2007, when Heathrow announced it would renovate its Terminal 3, Virgin tapped London-based service design firm, Engine Group UK, to join its in-house design team. The goal was to engineer a revolutionized space that would transform their piece of airport real estate into a destination.

The team started at the right place. They considered the customer’s journey from the moment they arrived at the terminal to the time they exited their flight and interviewed everyone involved in that journey – from frequent fliers to airport operators and the new terminal’s architects. They shadowed passengers to get a personalized sense of what it was like to complete a trip, then gained insight by conducting post-flight wrap-ups. By choosing to be completely user-centric in their approach, the team was able to map what they built to actual user needs and pains, one of the outcomes of using a design thinking approach.

For the design team, that meant breaking down the various pain points like check-in, baggage, security, and wait times to see how far they could ably push improvement within the parameters of their budget and square footage.

One of the big challenges involved accommodating the various classes of airport travel. In a perfect world there would be champagne for everyone, but Heathrow remains a capitalist system – a reality that required the team to create several service streams that would take their VIP level to the max while offering the best experience that the plebeian class could expect.

In this case, Virgin showed their smarts by pouring resources into economy class. Too many brands focus on redefining luxury for their VIPs in an attempt to lure the big money, but the reality is Upper Class only constituted between 10-20% of Virgin Atlantic’s business. The remaining 200 seats on each passenger jet needed to be filled by economy backsides, making their needs and comforts a top priority.

Right out of the gate the changes to economy service included a major boost in the number of self-service kiosks available for check-in. To keep the crowds from coiling around partitions like grumpy snakes (more commonly known as the sight that causes your stomach to drop the second you walk through the entrance), they set up an offside luggage station for over-packers trying to avoid extra baggage fees by hastily stuffing loose clothing in their various carry-ons. By the time the new terminal opened in early 2008, Virgin had also increased the number of friendly faces milling around to help passengers navigate the system.

Virgin Atlantic check in

Where the design team really got to have fun was in Upper Class territory because, let’s face it, money can’t buy you happiness but it sure makes the journey more comfortable. Through the newly re-purposed Clubhouse, Virgin began to offer VIP members an expedited “Drive Through” experience that zipped them through check-in and whisked them via private porter service through a special security lane, pre-weighed their baggage for them, and deposited them at the Upper Class Lounge.

Speaking of which, would you like to hear about the Upper Class Lounge? Of course you would. The beautiful, futuristic space was built to make Virgin’s more economically soluble customers feel at home, with a range of perks that included pre-flight power shakes, complimentary spa services, champagne cocktails at the bar, and legitimately appetizing food options. Although this may sound like an ad for Virgin, we included these details to show what their VIPs specifically wanted. In other words, the Lounge became great because Virgin understood its users.

Virgin Atlantic Upper Class lounge

Even if you’ve never flown Virgin, you may recall the buzz when the new space opened. The airline already enjoyed a great reputation, but its Heathrow design thinking experiment elevated it to a new level. Customer feedback was almost uniformly positive. Among economy travelers, 88% rated the new services as excellent or very good. Upper Classers expressed their near-unanimous approval for the new clubhouse and VIP services. Dee Cooper, at the time Virgin’s Product and Service Director and a coach at London’s DT Bootcamp, was lauded as a genius.

The opportunity to incorporate design thinking into your business, organization, event, or product doesn’t have to be airport scale. Brilliant strategic planning at any level happens from developing the right tools. Contact us to learn more about how design thinking tools can work for you.



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