Air Transport World

Meet Virgin Atlantic's reluctant star, Richard Branson.

Meet Virgin Atlantic's reluctant star, Richard Branson

To meet Richard Branson, chairman of Virgin Atlantic--the scheduled cheap-fare airline with a route between Gatwick and Newark, N.J.--you go to a street in a run-down area of northwest London, push through a little gate in a brick wall, and then walk along a muddy path by the side of a canal. For Branson's office is a houseboat and on board the atmosphere is more of a home than an executive suite. But do not be fooled by this "laid-back' ambience, and the fact that the chairman conducts interviews wearing a sweater and an open-neck shirt. Branson has one of the sharpest business brains in Britain, and down near Gatwick the headquarters of his fledgling airline is staffed by some very-experienced airline professionals indeed.

We were puzzled as to why this 34-year-old, who made his first million by the age of 20 from the recording company which is now the core of his $180 million pop, video, film, radio, nightclub empire, should want to enter the notoriously uncertain airline business? "It was not a lifelong ambition,' replied Branson, "and I certainly do not see myself as a crusader for low prices. Being a crusader if you are running a business can be very dangerous.'

Three month creation

The idea was brought to him, he said, and he was "extremely skeptical.' A former Civil Aviation Authority and British Airways man produced him a document laying it all out, saying why he thought Laker had failed, and making the points that Sir Freddie's economic crash need not mean that nobody else should ever start, and that it was possible to learn from his mistakes and to create a successful airline.

"I spent two hard weeks looking at the proposition very carefully, because the timing was short; we wanted to get the airline going in June 1984 before the summer season, and the initial approach was only made to me in March. I talked to people on the Laker and People Express situations and decided that we would have to find a 747-200 rather than a DC-10 to enable us to carry a full load of freight, as well as passengers, a modern aircraft with no reliability problems. …

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