A VIRGIN AT 36
It was 36 years ago this week (June 22nd) that the first Virgin Atlantic Airways flight left London Gatwick for Newark NJ. I remember it like it was yesterday, even if in my case it is exactly half a lifetime ago.
As June 22nd 1984 dawned, I’d been at Richard Branson’s home in London since the previous evening. We’d been up most of the night and by 6:00 am were still going over all kinds of last minute, “… and so what happens if…?” stuff. By the end of it, Richard was in the bathtub while I sat on top of the toilet taking notes and making phone calls. When Richard headed out to host the inaugural party at Gatwick, I left to catch the morning Concorde from LHR which left at 10:30 local and arrived in JFK at 09:35 – you got there an hour before you left! In New York I hotfooted it over to Newark to ensure everything was ready for VS001’s arrival that afternoon.
For me however, this journey had begun six months earlier in January. I was living and working in Miami when my former boss and good pal Sir Freddie Laker called to say he’d just given my name and number to, “a guy called ‘Brandsome’, or something like that”.
Giggling as he spoke, Freddie said this person – “something to do with the record business” – wanted to start a transatlantic airline. He then added, “He sounded barking mad to me but he wanted to know who I could recommend to help him – so I gave him your number.” Ten minutes later Branson (whom, like Freddie, I’d never heard of) called. We chatted for about 45 minutes and a couple of days later I was on a flight to London to meet with him.
On arrival in a rainy London I set off to find the rather odd address I’d been given for Branson’s office: It simply read, “Duende, opposite number x, Blomfield Rd.”
I was expecting a Virgin Records office building, so what was this ‘opposite’ thing? Getting out of the taxi, I found a high brick wall running down one side of Blomfield Road and, ‘opposite number x’ was an anonymous wooden door. Wondering if this were some kind of prank, I tentatively open the door to find it opened onto a towpath by a canal and, moored a few steps away, was a nothing-fancy houseboat named ‘Duende’.
Climbing aboard, I was greeted by a smiling, sweater-wearing Richard, with his 14-month-old daughter Holly struggling in his arms. His secretary Penny hurriedly moved some files to clear a place for me to sit and asked if I’d like a cup of tea. Only then did I learn that for several years the Duende had served as home and office for Richard, his not-yet wife Joan and their daughter Holly.
By the time I disembarked Richard’s unfettered enthusiasm for starting a new and radically different transatlantic airline had got me so fired up I’d accepted his job offer on the spot. I did agree with Freddie that the guy was a little crazy – he didn’t know what he didn’t know, but that had lots of upsides too. What he did know, came from consistently bad, overpriced service at the hands of Pan Am, TWA and BA while flying to and from the US on Virgin Records business. He saw the airline industry strictly through the eyes of an unhappy customer and had a plethora of ideas as to how it could be done better. Or as he said that day, “It would take a lot of serious effort for anyone to do it any worse.”
I almost blew the gig when, in response to Richard saying he wanted to brand his airline ‘Virgin Atlantic’ I replied, “That’ll never work Richard. Who’s going to want to fly on an airline that won’t go all the way?”
While today starting an airline can take years, just six short months later we had an Air Operator Certificate, leased a former Aerolineas Argentinas Boeing 747-200 (the contract had an out after 12 months if the business didn’t work out) and we’d hired and trained a fabulous team of bright young people who were all excited to be part of the revolution we had in mind.
We were going to do utterly radical stuff like having our cabin crews smile at our passengers and be genuinely nice to them. Seriously! When the cognoscente asked what an entertainment company could possibly know about the serious business of transporting airline passengers, we told them that most airlines seemed to have forgotten they too were supposed to be in the business of entertaining their customers. “Just watch and learn” could have been our message.
This was the happy ‘Maiden Voyager’ group. Accompanying Richard (top left in captain’s gear) was his whole family (mum and dad included) plus the likes of David Frost, the spoon bending magician Uri Geller, Mike Oldfield, (whose huge hit album Tubular Bells had help finance the airline) Clement Freud and multiple members of the press corp.
On arrival at Newark we found that Richard had forgotten his passport but we sorted it out and the party went on: That night in Manhattan, we took over a club in Soho called Area and, still dressed in his ‘Captain America’ outfit, Richard clearly thought that pushing a bottle of beer up my nose seemed like a fun ruse.
After the parties it was down to business. “Pshaw, pshaw” exclaimed the competition, “They won’t last six months.” I must confess there were a few times in the early going when they were almost right, but we were stuck in there. In a business where everyone thought only the Goliaths could make it work, we leveraged our smallness to the max. Business travellers flocked to our really cool Upper Class service and all the bells and whistles our giant competitors couldn’t possibly match: On-board massage therapy, limos at both ends, on-board stand-up bars – there was no way they could possibly replicate such things on their huge fleets and global routes.
We developed a corporate culture wherein our people were our product and we took the business of fun very seriously. We figured if our people had fun doing their jobs then the chances were much greater that our customers were going to have fun having it done to them. We did a lot of ‘wild and crazy’ stuff to promote the brand – we had no budget to do it any other way. There were hot-air balloons and speedboats across the Atlantic but some of my favorite things were the more subtle ones, like the “Stainless Steal” inscription on the Upper Class cutlery.
As the next Travel Agent Magazine picture (circa 1998) shows, we eventually did try to take life a little bit more seriously – the beer bottle and beard are gone and that’s me in a suit, although this time Richard is dressed as a limo driver, just why exactly I cannot recall.
So, half a lifetime later it is a very different world for everyone. COVID-19 is taking a devastating toll on every business but none more so than the airline industry. My beard is back and I am just praying that Virgin Atlantic will still be around to see its 40th birthday in four years time – while despite their best efforts over the years, BA has failed to take down Virgin, it would be very sad to see all that hard work taken out by a virus.
First published at Travel Industry Today