The Incredible Reason Why Richard Branson Started Virgin Atlantic

A delayed flight was the source of inspiration.

Richard Branson
Photo: Getty Images

Thirty five years ago, Richard Branson was stuck on a tarmac trying to leave Puerto Rico for the British Virgin Islands. His flight was grounded, and he’d been away from his girlfriend for three weeks. Needless to say, he was over it.

What do you do in this situation? My answer is typically to lean into my fate and order a glass of wine, resigning myself to an eternity stuck on an airplane.

Branson walked to the back of the plane and asked for a chalkboard and a writing implement. He figured out how much it would cost to charter a plane to BVI — and how much it would cost each passenger if the expense were pooled. And then he went for it, walking up and down the aisles of the grounded airplane selling tickets. On the chalkboard he wrote, “$39 one way to BVI.”

And that was Virgin Atlantic’s first flight.

Branson told us this story in a downtown Los Angeles warehouse space, where we gathered to celebrate a new Virgin Atlantic flight path — Los Angeles to Manchester — and the company’s 35th birthday. Which is perhaps why he explained that, 35 years ago, after chartering that one flight to the British Virgin Islands, he decided to call Boeing when he got back to England to ask if he could buy a secondhand 747.

On the phone, Boeing asked which company he was with. To which he replied, having already founded Virgin Records, “Virgin.”

What sticks out when hearing Branson tell his founding story firsthand — from chartering his first aircraft, to creating a full-fledged airline — is the humor and genuine humanity in every step. At no point does building a company sound corporate when coming from Branson’s mouth. It instead sounds honest and authentic.

He said when he was branding Virgin Atlantic that someone told him, “Nobody, nobody will ever fly on an airline called ‘virgin.’”

Seriously, insert crying laughing emoji here. And speaking of self-aware hilarity, Branson also told us that on his inaugural flight, they screened “Airplane.” Because, how could you not?

As for sheer humanity, Branson left us with the story of the “BA Christmas bonus.” Branson has long since touted the idea that it’s the people who really made his business what it is today, and thanks to an illegal maneuver by a competing company, he was able to show every employee his gratitude with a bonus.

Here’s the abridged version of the story: in the 1990s, British Airways went as far as having a team illegally access Virgin’s digital information. They then called Virgin Atlantic clients, pretending to be from Virgin, to say the customer’s flight had been canceled and rebook them on British Airways.

Virgin Atlantic is a company rooted in the notion of beating the odds. Indeed, even when Virgin’s fleet was significantly smaller than nearly all of their competitors’, they fought to stay a contender. So even up against the adversity of British Airways using flat-out illegal means to try to put them out of business, they didn’t back down.

Instead, they took British Airways to court, where they won the largest libel suit in British history. Virgin then took the almost $1 million in damages and distributed it equally to Virgin Atlantic employees — hence, the BA Christmas bonus.

What sticks out in hearing Branson recount the evolution of Virgin Atlantic — other than the humility and the lolz — is the actual desire to make a better product than what was already offered. Isn’t that the essence of entrepreneurship? Branson, beyond his status as a founder or a billionaire, is an entrepreneur first, attracted to good ideas that successfully fill a necessary niche.

And when it comes to the travel industry, there are still endless opportunities to make offerings more effective, more advanced, more environmentally friendly, or what have you. Branson proves it’s all about identifying the flaws or gaping holes in the industry, even if inspiration strikes when grounded on a Puerto Rico tarmac.

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