A successful airline based in England that has broken new ground in airline amenities.
Richard Branson is the founder of Virgin Atlantic. By the time he established the airway, Branson was already a successful entrepreneur with his Virgin Group, a conglomerate anchored by Virgin Records. In 1984, Branson followed up on a suggestion to found a new airline company operating a jumbojet passenger service between London and New York. On June 22, 1984, Virgin Atlantic made its first flight from London to Newark, New Jersey. Virgin Atlantic went on to become the second largest British long-haul international airline. It flies from London’s Heathrow and Gatwick Airports to eighteen different cities throughout the world, including Shanghai, China, and the Caribbean.
Branson decided to concentrate on the airline part of his business, selling Virgin Music in 1992 to Thorn EMI for $1 billion and reinvested the profits into Virgin Atlantic. Branson still had vast business interests, which fed into his airline interests. In December, 1999, Singapore Airlines purchased 49 percent of Virgin Atlantic.
Virgin Atlantic continued to expand into the jumbojet market. In May, 2001, Virgin Atlantic purchased six Airbus A380 superjumbos, with an option to buy six more, to be used on the North Atlantic routes. Additionally, Virgin modernized its operations and planned a move to Boeing’s Mach 0.95 aircraft.
Virgin Atlantic kept its offbeat image and edge in customer service through adherence to Branson’s operating philosophy—namely, to operate a business that is “really focused on the customer and what the marketing proposition is.”
In 2001, Virgin Atlantic had seventeen Boeing 747’s, ten Airbuses, eight A340-600’s, and six A380’s on order. Virgin had expanded to Toronto, giving it an operation in the top-ten long haul markets from Heathrow. It also opened a route to Lagos, Nigeria, challenging British Airways. It was expanding to Dubai, Singapore, Australia, Osaka, and India.
Virgin has long been known for its in-flight amenities, such as a masseuse and personal entertainment centers. It announced plans to offer gyms and shops on the new A380’s, and possibly bistro bars on the galley, as incentives to get passengers to move around on the plane. It is certain that Virgin will continue to maintain its “quirky” reputation for trying new things to keep passengers interested.
Virgin’s advertising, for example, is on the cutting edge and eye-catching. Virgin ran a “sexy” campaign with models in thigh-high boots. The advertisements stressed the fun of its business-class service and mocked the increasing phenomenon of air rage by stressing that no one ever curses the air masseuses. Ads also poked fun at Queen Elizabeth and international travel itself.
Branson considered establishing an all-business-class airline, an area he believed has been neglected. The airline would fly not only to cities such as London and New York, but also to Nairobi and Seattle. On June 12, 2001, Branson announced that Virgin Atlantic was in talks with Bombardier, a Canadian regional aircraft manufacturer, about establishing an all-business-class carrier called Jetset Airlines. Branson explored the possibility of turning Bombardier’s Global Express aircraft into a first-class sleeper configuration that would accomodate twenty passengers. However, he also looked into Airbus Industrie’s A319 corporate jet and Boeing’s business jet.
Branson had not forgotten the coach passenger, either, and moved to make these passengers comfortable with wider seats and more entertainment and food choices. Virgin became the first airline to have e-mail and World Wide Web access available for every passenger. Another aspect of that attention was Virgin Atlantic’s campaign to update the look of flight attendants. In 1998, Virgin Atlantic hired Irish designer John Rocha to change the uniform of its flight attendants. Rocha gave them a sophisticated, red-suited look. Other airlines soon followed. British Airways hired designer Julien Macdonald to change their attendants’ red, white, and blue garb. Air France employed designers Marithe and François Girbaud to update their crew’s bland uniforms. JetBlue’s attendants began their tenure with a chic, city-sleek, midnight blue ensemble.
As a result of Branson’s innovative approach to airline management, Virgin Atlantic has won numerous awards for nearly every aspect of its service. In addition to awards for long-haul, business-class, coach, freight, and charter service, the airline has been awarded for its in-flight entertainment, in-flight magazine, food service, advertising, frequent-flier program, and even environmental awareness. In a highly competitive industry where airlines go out of business more often than they start up, Virgin Atlantic has made its mark by focusing on making the process of getting to the destination a pleasure rather than a chore.
Branson, Richard. Losing My Virginity: How I’ve Survived, Had Fun, and Made a Fortune Doing Business My Way. New York: Crown, 1999. The personal story of Branson’s rise to fame and of Virgin Atlantic, including his unique business philosophy. Gregory, Martyn. Dirty Tricks: British Airways’ Secret War Against Virgin Atlantic. New York: Little, Brown, 1997. The inside story of the manner in which British Airways sought to stifle competition and destroy Virgin Atlantic. Icon Group International. Atlantic Coast Airlines Holdings. San Diego, Calif.: Icon Group International, 2000. An exploration of the various airlines that fly the transatlantic route.
Airline industry, U.S.