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Virgin Atlantic showed British Airways how to be great

Plane talk: A flag carrier needs a home-grown rival

Simon Calder
Travel Correspondent
Wednesday 22 April 2020 09:00 BST
Richard Branson promotes the inaugural flight of the Virgin Atlantic Airbus A340 to Dubai in 2006
Richard Branson promotes the inaugural flight of the Virgin Atlantic Airbus A340 to Dubai in 2006 (Rex)

“During the 70s, what was offered in the air was an absolutely miserable experience. Which was why we decided to get into the airline business and try to change things.”

Sir Richard Branson, as he later became, has started many businesses. They range from Virgin Records, which dramatically cut the cost of owning vinyl, to Virgin Orbit, intended dramatically to cut the cost of launching satellites. But none means as much to him as Virgin Atlantic.

The transatlantic airline he started in 1984 was not so much about cutting costs as improving aviation.

For the eight lucky passengers who were the sole occupants of the upper deck in his secondhand Boeing 747, travelling life had never felt so good.

They were picked up from their homes in limousines, taken to Gatwick in style, given Upper Class boarding passes, plied with bubbly in the “bubble” behind the flight deck, ushered to the front of the immigration queue at New York’s Newark airport, and driven to their final destination in Manhattan – but not before they were handed a voucher for a free economy-class hop on Virgin Atlantic to be handed on to the lesser mortal of their choice.

Many elements of the “rock star” treatment are familiar today. But in the 1980s they were revolutionary, and the sense of glamour trickled down to those of us in the cheap seats felt special. Virgin Atlantic was Richard Branson’s airline, and its passengers were his people.

A decade after the airline’s creation, when it was a serious thorn in the side of British Airways, I was at Boston airport waiting for a delayed flight when every passenger was handed a letter that had been dictated by the bearded billionaire to apologise for the late departure.

Virgin Atlantic was the first in Europe to introduce seatback screens for inflight entertainment, and Premium Economy (initially called Mid Class).

Much more importantly, Richard Branson introduced competition for British Airways. He cherry-picked BA’s most profitable transatlantic routes from London – Boston, Miami, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Washington DC – and launched his own Jumbo jets decorated lipstick-red against the more corporate British Airways 747s.

Once Virgin gained access to Heathrow, Virgin Atlantic secured rights for the other glittering prizes: Hong Kong, Johannesburg, Tokyo.

In an industry that is notorious for helping people lose fortunes, owning an airline made the founder famously rich.

The wealth that Sir Richard has accrued has been under scrutiny since Monday, when the Virgin boss appealed for a government loan to keep the airline alive.

Virgin Atlantic is burning through cash at a rate of several million pounds per day without any new revenue as the coronavirus pandemic closes down international aviation.

“It wouldn’t be free money and the airline would pay it back,” Sir Richard insisted. But the court of social media was outraged about such a “high net wealth individual” seeking public money.

I predict that a compromise will be found, and that Virgin Atlantic will continue to provide British passengers with something no other European nation has: two excellent airlines locked in ferocious competition.

British Airways has been hoping to see the back of Virgin Atlantic during the latter’s entire 36-year existence, and at the start of the 1990s, BA even indulged in some industrial-scale trickery to undermine its smaller rival.

Virgin Atlantic plane brings hundreds of thousands of PPE items from China to UK

As Covid-19 threatens Sir Richard’s Australian operation – now in the hands of administrators – some British Airways “lifers” may now be scenting blood.

They should be careful of what they wish for: competition from the young, stylish upstart has done BA huge favours, and Virgin Atlantic continues to provide a benchmark by which good airlines measure themselves.

“If we were to lose Virgin Atlantic,” I heard on the radio on Monday evening, “you are handing over a monopoly to British Airways”.

That will come as news to BA, which – when hostilities resume – will continue to face intense competition from Delta and United across the Atlantic and from Emirates to pretty much anywhere south and east of Europe.

Certainly the British traveller to the Caribbean or Florida would be disadvantaged by the demise of Virgin Atlantic, but another leisure-focused airline would surely move in on the key routes to Antigua, Barbados, St Lucia and Orlando.

But apart from Sir Richard Branson and his outstanding airline staff, the biggest loser in a world without the “rock star” airline would be British Airways. A flag carrier needs a home-grown rival. And Virgin Atlantic showed BA how to be great.

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