Shai Weiss: the boss of Virgin Atlantic takes off after the pandemic | Virgin Atlantic
Shai Weiss sits in a reception room of a Florida hotel, picking up the decor. “It’s stylized, rather than elegant… It looks cheap. Look at the cushions.
Upholstery fabrics may seem like an unlikely part of an airline CEO’s repertoire, but being “multi-dimensional” is a key asset, says the Virgin Atlantic chief. He’s a former banker, tank commander and tech entrepreneur – not, he points out, just “the finance guy”.
Last week, in the competition for customers on lucrative transatlantic routes, Virgin unveiled its new Airbus 330neo aircraft, where details from plush new cabins, down to seat pitch, are being rigorously scrutinized as part of the investment multi-billion dollar airline.
The plane’s maiden flight to Tampa saw Weiss greet guests and media from 6 a.m. at London Heathrow, and continued on a 10 a.m. flight for press conferences and meetings with officials. dignitaries and shareholders in the United States – his longest working day in some time. But he is exuberant after a few difficult years – for the airline and him personally.
Virgin Atlantic was, like carriers around the world, grounded by Covid but, unable to access government guaranteed loans to rivals, has come closer to the brink than most before a plan to rescue is agreed. “Let’s call a dog a dog – some people thought we might not get there,” he says.
Weiss had already implemented cost-cutting plans for the airline, which hovered between profit and loss even in good times. These
Family Married for 24 years; two boys, aged 19 and 17.
Education Bachelor of Business Administration from Baruch College, New York; MBA from Columbia University.
Pay £700,000, plus an annual bonus of up to £1.05m.
Last holidays With the family in Puglia, southern Italy – “recovering, but I am generally a very active holidaymaker”.
Best advice ever given An extension of economics writer Jim Collins’ famous quote: “Always have the right people on the bus.” But know how to drive the bus.
worst career mistake “I accepted a job which, according to my wife, was not for me. In three hours, I knew it wasn’t gonna work, but I stayed for a year
Sentence he abuses “What else?”
how he relaxes Holder of a season ticket in “excellent places” at Arsenal; family time; walk and explore London and other cities.
the cuts have been accelerated by the pandemic, using “a crisis as an opportunity”, he says, to ask: “Can we be more brutally focused, can we go even further?”
The airline was reduced to nothing: 40 to 45% of the staff disappeared and only the front line crew were rehired when travel resumed. The road network was cut and its 747 jumbos withdrawn. “We have gone further and deeper than any other airline. Could we have done it without this existential level of crisis? Theoretically yes, practically no. Life is like that. You can either make the most of it for your people or give up.
As the latest Covid Omicron wave waned, Weiss faced her own existential crisis. Unusually, he publicly announced early to the staff his diagnosis of stage 3 colon cancer. After immediate surgery and chemotherapy, he is in remission. The chemo was “extremely difficult,” he says, “and it continues to be, you know, not the easiest time.”
Cancer hasn’t given him “revelations”, as he puts it, but: “I’ve learned to trust more and more over the past few years, and over the past year I’ve seen how the team works, because I was not there every day. His voice cracks as he says he feels “blessed to have an amazing wife and two kids…I really am the luckiest guy.”
However, he is now urging everyone over 40 to have a colonoscopy – and he challenges the language that still persists around cancer. “It’s not a fight, it’s not a war, it’s not the capital C. It’s just cancer. Nobody did anything wrong to get cancer.
“It happens to a lot of people. Each of us faces it individually. Some of us are lucky to get by, some aren’t. »
While Weiss takes issue with the combative health language, he describes himself as a fighter in other ways — tougher than his slightly geeky, grinning appearance and background in technology and finance might suggest.
Growing up in Jerusalem, Weiss chose to extend his compulsory military service for a year to become a platoon commander in the tank corps. He refuses to answer certain questions: “Not everyone likes the army. I am not a Rambo.
“Did I shoot it? I retaliated? Yes. Have I seen the difficulties of conflict and the devastation it creates? Yes.”
And he adds: “I wanted to be in combat. I now know that everyone is in intelligence or cybersecurity. Maybe I wasn’t smart enough. I wanted to fight.
Weiss is a British citizen by birth, as his mother was born in London in 1939, his parents having escaped there from the Netherlands; his paternal grandparents arrived in Israel from Poland, but many relatives did not survive the Holocaust.
He moved to the UK in 1997 as an investment banker for Morgan Stanley. He worked in the technology sector, including on the merger and takeovers that formed Virgin Media, and became more involved with Virgin working on the deal that made Delta a 49% shareholder of the airline of Richard Branson.
Weiss joined the carrier full-time in 2014 in business and finance roles – “people think I’m the finance guy; I’m not the finance guy” – before taking the helm in 2019.
The airline’s culture has changed dramatically since the days when no inaugural flight was fully booked without Branson roughing up a scantily clad celebrity model on the wing for the cameras. Weiss said he didn’t have any difficult conversations: “Who am I to tell Richard Branson what to do? He is the master of the representation of the spirit of the times. Can I blame him for the fact that 20 years ago…that’s how he got attention?
The modern Virgin Atlantic has made several significant changes to position itself as diverse and inclusive. Weiss says, “It’s absolutely not symbolic. It comes from our people.
He likes to describe staff as Virgin’s ‘secret sauce’ – even though there’s now a lot less sauce. “I won’t stop – the fact that I say the secret sauce is our people is that we have incredible talent, and they should be included and inclusive.”
The decision to relax the make-up policy came, he said, from a female cabin crew member who wrote to Weiss saying she did not understand why only women had to follow suits. such rules. The crew then asked if men could wear it too: “I said, no problem as long as you meet our criteria, which is really the color of red.”
Crew change dress codes to allow visible tattoos and for staff to wear according to the skirts or pants they want, regardless of gender, followed this year. But “the problem is that they can – they know they have the freedom to feel comfortable the way they are. I don’t judge quantity – I judge if they are happy.
Aviation‘s biggest problem remains its environmental record. Despite the hype about the A330neo’s comparative merits as “the greenest in the sky”, Weiss admits, “When you look at what’s available on the net zero path, the first thing for long-haul carriers is your fleet. We’ve invested billions – it’s not an eco-plane, but it’s the most efficient plane there is.
The second big question is sustainable aviation fuel – but Weiss is concerned about the pace of progress to ensure that a fraction of the jet fuel used by carriers is sustainable – synthetic or made from waste – rather than kerosene. standard. “We have nothing – the framework, the legislation, the funding. I’m afraid the UK doesn’t have enough factories to deliver that 10%. And that’s only 10%.
Challenges remain, but Weiss says he’s much happier with where Virgin Atlantic stands today, a “mature” airline rather than just Branson’s baby. “After 38 years, we are all growing up. Now I would say we are a high performing adult.