Virgin territory

Virgin territory

With a clean slate, Virgin Blue and Nick Brant have been able to approach airline Information Management from a different plane.

By Mark Chillingworth

People come to Australia to make a new start. Since colonisation men and women from Asia, Europe and the Middle East have made the journey, wiping the slate clean and starting out with a new agenda.

The same new start ideals were at the centre of Great Britain’s Virgin entering into the Australian airline market. With no baggage from buying out an existing airline, Virgin Blue was able to introduce a new way of handling passengers and data that would be as unsullied as their young fleet of Boeing 737s.

Travelling with Virgin Blue is refreshing. Booking flights online is not a new experience for most executives, but within 15 minutes of entering your credit card there is no anguishing worry of whether you have a ticket or not, as Virgin Blue has sent you a PDF based itinerary via email. This PDF is your ticket to ride. Arrive at the airport clutching this and some photo identification and you are given a small piece of receipt paper with a bar code. As you board the bright red plane, staff scan your boarding paper and you are up and away. The entire Virgin Blue experience is quick, easy and trouble free. First hand experience of travelling with the new airline is what convinced Image & Data Manager to investigate how an airline can process and manage information so quickly.

Entering a new market is a daunting task, but there are advantages as well. For years the airline industry has had to support legacy systems, many of which are not connected and if an airline does decide to integrate systems, it is a costly business. Virgin Blue did not have to face any of these concerns.

”As a company it’s nice to start afresh, there is no legacy and no migration costs, but it does come with its own challenges,” said Nick Brant, the head of information technology at Virgin Blue.

As part of the Virgin group of companies, Virgin Blue did have an Ace up its sleeve. Founder Richard Branson had already formed a successful economy airline in Europe, Virgin Express. Much of the technology utilised by Virgin Blue has already been road tested.

According to Mr Brant, the clean slate approach enables Virgin Blue to be nimble and highly reactive to changes in the marketplace.

And the industry has certainly been on shaky ground. Virgin Blue entered the Australian market as the third alternative national airliner just before the greatest shake-up the local airline industry has ever seen. On Thursday 31 August, 2000 one of two Virgin Blue aircraft took off on the airline’s first flight from Brisbane to Sydney, just prior to the Olympic Games. A little more than a year later, terrorists attacked the United States using airliners and Australian international airline Ansett collapsed. By 2002 Virgin had become the second national airline. Australia had pinned its hopes on the only rival to Qantas as they feared flying nationally would become too expensive without some competition in the air. Throughout 2002 Virgin Blue added more routes and thus planes and infrastructure to the company. Yet Mr Brant says this exponential growth has been handled easily and that Virgin Blue has not lost any of its agility in the process.

”It took just nine days to take the Christmas voucher scheme from idea to completion,” Mr Brant said of the vouchers introduced for Christmas 2002.

The technology Virgin Blue uses helped them achieve their meteoric growth and to pass savings on to their customers.

”Too many companies use technology to cut their costs, but never pass them on to the customers,” he said.


The first experience over half of passengers have when travelling with Virgin Blue is booking a ticket through the Web site. connects directly to the Open Skies reservation and airport process application that Virgin Blue uses. Formerly a Hewlett-Packard (HP) application, Open Skies provides airlines with a skeleton for e-commerce applications. Mr Brant explained that the process and steps through it are locked, but airlines can bolt their own choice of front end to it. A number of successful economy airlines in Europe such as Ryanair have the same system.

”It is totally up to the operator. We went over to Flash around three or four months ago,” he said. Virgin Blue developed the Flash site in-house.

”As the door closes on any Virgin Blue flight, we know how much money is on that flight,” Mr Brant said of the transparency of a fully connected, single database application. Older airlines with legacy systems often have to wait months to see the value of each flight, a fact that was revealed in the demise of Ansett.


The Open Skies application was central to helping Virgin Blue keep costs down, according to Mr Brant. Provider Navitaire, which focuses on the airline industry, hosts the application in Australia for Virgin Blue. At the core of Open Skies is a single database. The single database model works perfectly for the budget airline model. Virgin Blue doesnÕt provide customers with a meal as part of the flight package. All Virgin Blue passengers receive is the journey. As a result the data entered into Open Skies is simple, who is on what flight.

”I think a lot the traditional carriers would love to go to it [Open Skies], but they have their own legacy systems,” Mr Brant said.

If competitors want to continue offering a meal as part of their flying package then Open Skies is not an alternative to them, according to Mr Brant, as it is difficult to have personal data such as dietary requirements like a customer being a vegetarian entered.

Daily reports can be extracted from Open Skies by Virgin Blue, which Mr Brant said has enabled the airline to efficiently assess its data and make operating decisions.

Chunky cardboard tickets with a magnetic strip on the back are as much a part of flying as rough meals in a plastic tray and turbulence. But Virgin Blue customers receive a PDF via email.

Developed in-house by the Virgin Blue development group, Mr Brant feels the PDF is the ideal ticket and itinerary solution.

”The information is uniform and easy to understand. We will add further value to them soon with maps of the airports and details of other services,” Mr Brant said. He admitted that using PDF does save Virgin Blue printing costs, as the customer prints the itinerary out themselves. “But we offer a faster service and a better format. Where we save on our costs we pass that saving on to the customer.”

”The greatest saving for them is in the speed that they can get information to their customer,” Craig Tegle, the Adobe director for Asia Pacific said on the ticketing system.


With no traditional tickets delivered in the post, Virgin Blue gives customers a print out with a bar code. Passengers hand this to the staff as they leave the terminal to join the plane and it is scanned with a Symbol bar code scanner.

Mr Brant explained that the bar code scanners provide Virgin Blue with a very simple system for checking information. As passengers have their details scanned the information is fed back into Open Skies and details cross-checked in the single database, preventing the need to dump data down and then re-upload it.

Michael Anderson, account manager, BarCode Products, the company that created the solution for Virgin Blue said it was not an easy project to complete.

”Virgin Blue are servicing customers a lot better than other airlines, as they are faster and people have less time,” Mr Anderson said.

Virgin Blue broke new ground when it launched the airline. As the third airline, Virgin had to fight for terminal space and set up a roving check-in. Operators would wander around the terminal looking for customers and with the Symbol devices was able to check passengers in. Since the demise of Ansett, Virgin Blue has moved into permanent terminals, the last being Sydney.

”The kerb side check-in was used a lot when we first started out. It was useful at the time and we will look at other initiatives in the future including self-service,” Mr Brant said.

As can be read elsewhere (pages 12 and 13) in this issue, correct document management can mean the difference between aeroplanes meeting their service schedules and the business remaining solvent, or the public loosing confidence in you when you most need your customers.

Managing documented information throughout Virgin Blue is a network of 12 Ricoh multi-function devices. Once scanned, the documents are managed by suite of LaserFiche client/server applications.

Important documents are bar-coded and then managed by the bar-code module of LaserFiche. Up to 100 LaserFiche licences were purchased by Virgin Blue, over half of which were for the WebLink application. The latter allows staff to access corporate documents via a traditional Web browser on the company intranet.

From the beginning, Virgin Blue had serious Australian and technological ambitions. At the launch it said it expected the Internet to account for the majority of its ticket sales. Within months of launching, Virgin Blue entered the competitive Sydney to Melbourne route, one of the busiest airline routes in the world and necessitated a growth in aircraft fleet and infrastructure. By May 2001 one of its rivals was gone; Impulse Airlines couldn’t take the pressure of rising oil prices, and was swallowed up by Qantas, giving Qantas a shot in the arm in the local market.

Less than four months later Ansett was grounded when its parent company, Air New Zealand announced that it could not support the debts of Ansett in September 2001. As world wide airlines reeled in the wake of the September 11 attacks on America, Virgin Blue had to put growth onto full throttle.

”The call centre felt it very hard. It was difficult to get through to the Web Site,” Mr Brant said of the demands placed on Virgin Blue when Ansett collapsed and its infrastructure; adding, “As an example, David Jones can have as many doors as it likes, but there is a physical limit to the amount of people that can get in Ð this was no different.”

But the airline has survived and grown beyond expectations, and now there is talk of challenging Qantas and Air New Zealand on local international flights to Hong Kong and New Zealand. Virgin Blue has increased its fleet from two brand new Boeing 737s to 29.

Nick Brant’s IT team has grown from 12 in June last year as Australian airline scene began to change to 27 today; a still meagre team compared to the army at Qantas. Mr Brant predicts the team will grow to 33 next year as the amount of information grows and Virgin Blue continues to add new routes and more customers to its books. Part of Virgin Blue’s success has been its base. Queensland has stolen the march on Victoria and to some degree New South Wales and has become a technology leader in Australia.

”Virgin Blue has done very well being based in Queensland. It is one of those really good matches, as Queensland does have a strong aviation focus,” Mr Brant said. Most of the small IT team has been found locally.

2003 may not throw the giant challenges at Virgin Blue that 2001 and 2002 did, but with Richard Branson in the pilot seat and a desire to challenge Qantas in all areas of its backyard, there is no knowing what the airline can do. Its lack of baggage and fresh look at information management has helped Virgin Blue tackle the challenges and grow. Will the same approach see them win over foreign routes?