Celebrating 35 years of Virgin Atlantic

Black and white photo of Richard Branson, Joan and Holly sitting in a Virgin Atlantic plane
Image by Virgin Atlantic
Natalie Clarkson
by Natalie Clarkson
20 June 2019

June 22nd, 1984 saw Virgin Atlantic take to the skies for the very first time in a leased Boeing 747 christened Maiden Voyager. Since that first flight from London Gatwick to Newark it has gone from a small challenger airline to one of the most-loved ways to travel worldwide.

It all began when Virgin Group founder Richard Branson found himself stranded in Puerto Rico after the airline due to take him to the BVI cancelled his flight due to low numbers of passengers. Fed up, he hired a plane to get him there. The story goes that he borrowed a blackboard from the airport, jokingly wrote Virgin Airways on it and advertised one-way tickets to the BVI for $39 to his fellow stranded passengers. He quickly filled the plane and they were able to continue with their journey.

Annoyed with airlines that had little consideration for their passengers, Branson wanted to do something about it. So he got on the phone to Boeing, leased a 747 and set about founding an airline that put the customer first. 35 years on, Virgin Atlantic still aims to offer its customers the best service in the sky.

Over the years Virgin Atlantic has redefined flying. It was the first airline to introduce a bar area onboard where passengers could socialise during a flight. And in 1991 Virgin Atlantic’s aircraft were the first to offer individual screens for passengers in all classes to choose what they wanted to watch during their flight.

Painting the sky red

As well as creating a unique service for customers on board, Virgin Atlantic is loved for its distinctively designed aircraft. The livery design has evolved over the years and is created from several visual signatures.

Virgin Atlantic plane in flight
Image from Virgin Atlantic

It’s common for airlines to adopt a red tail fin and red jet engines as their livery, so Virgin Atlantic had to create authentic, original designs to stand out. For the last 35 years, the airline has used the Flying Lady icon, based on the pinup girls made famous by Alberto Vargas in the 1930s and 1940s, to brighten up its planes.

She’s appeared in many forms over the years, including a starring role to celebrate Virgin Atlantic’s 21st birthday in 2005. Instead of appearing small at the front of the plane as she would usually, the airline created a giant special edition of the Flying Lady livery with her trailing her flag into the red Virgin tail fin.

In 2014, fans finally got to see the Flying Lady face on for the first time. Celebrating the airline’s 30th birthday with its first Boeing 787 Dreamliner, the Flying Lady was pictured raising a super-sized champagne coupe on the aircraft christened Birthday Girl.

Birthday Girl Flying Icon on a Virgin Atlantic Boeing 787
Image from Virgin Atlantic

She’s now set to be retired later this year with the introduction of new Flying Icons. These will see both women and men adorning the aircraft for the first time. The new high flyers are also a more diverse range of people, representing a modern Britain. They will appear on the four brand new Airbus A350 aircraft that Virgin Atlantic is introducing this year and a further eight aircraft by 2021.

Looking the part

As well as having a distinctive look for its aircraft, Virgin Atlantic has become known for its stylish cabin crew uniforms. Arabella Pollen, one of the most renowned designers of the 1980s, designed the first red uniform, which was worn from launch until 1991.

Virgin Atlantic cabin crew in the 1980s
Image from Virgin Atlantic

David and Elizabeth Emanuel, designers of Princess Diana’s wedding dress, were invited to work their magic on Virgin Atlantic’s uniforms in 1991. The resulting design became the most iconic uniform of the decade and is still known as The Emanuel today.

Many cabin crew members say that this uniform is their favourite, describing the bold, confident design as a classic – though by today’s standards it may look dated.

Richard Branson with Virgin Atlantic cabin crew wearing the red Virgin Atlantic uniform designed by David Emmanuel
Image from Virgin Atlantic

By the end of the 1990s, the uniform had another new look, this time courtesy of John Rocha. Named British designer of the year in 1999, Rocha put his own stamp on the uniform with a more minimal design featuring soft lines and just one silver button on the jacket. This uniform also saw cabin crew’s iconic red shoes replaced by black ones.

Five years later the design was updated again by Rocha and the female cabin crew jacket was tailored to a fitted design, more in line with fashion at the time. Then in 2012 more changes saw the neck scarf tied around cabin crew members’ necks like a cravat and the reintroduction of the much-loved red shoes.

12 members of Virgin Atlantic cabin crew wearing the uniform designed by John Rocha
Image from Virgin Atlantic

As the airline began to approach its 30th birthday in 2014, it was time for another uniform refresh and this time legendary fashion designer Vivienne Westwood was tasked with the redesign. Westwood’s uniform design incorporated 22 different versions of the uniform to be worn by more than 7,500 people in a variety of climates worldwide.

Westwood looked to 1940s French couture for inspiration for her uniform design. The result was red jackets, which are fitted for female cabin crew members, nipping in at the waist and curving for the hip line. Pleats and asymmetric buttons bring detail to the design and the accompanying pencil skirt adds a feminine look.

13 Virgin Atlantic employees showing the Virgin Atlantic uniform designed by Vivienne Westwood
Image from Virgin Atlantic

Male cabin crew wear a Savile Row-inspired three-piece suit. The burgundy wool suit features grey detailing on the waistcoat, lapels and pockets, giving the uniform a traditional British appearance while still feeling modern.

Westwood’s uniform is also the most sustainable yet, with 25 per cent of the pieces manufactured from recycled polyester yarn made from recycled plastic bottles. The skirt fabrics also have a ‘nano’ finish, meaning that liquids run off them, preventing stains and extending the life of these items by retaining their Virgin red colour and finish for longer.

Richard Branson stands in front of Virgin Atlantic cabin crew holding Union Jack flags and umbrellas
Image from Virgin Atlantic

Looking forward

But it’s not just the uniforms that are becoming more sustainable Virgin Atlantic is now focused on the future of the airline. The partnership with biofuel producer LanzaTech is helping Virgin Atlantic to consider alternatives to jet fuel. And in October 2018 they operated the first commercial flight powered by LanzaTech’s sustainable aviation fuel.

This, accompanied with the Airbus A350s Virgin Atlantic will introduce this year, and the Airbus A330neo aircraft the airline has just ordered, will help make it one of the cleanest and greenest fleets in the sky.

Visit Virgin Atlantic to find out more.