What if travelling by plane could be fun? The story of Virgin Atlantic

Richard Branson promoting Virgin Atlantic in the 1980s
Virgin Galactic
Richard Branson's signature
Published on 7 September 2023

I’ve always asked ‘what if…’ questions as an entrepreneur, and the inception of Virgin Atlantic was no exception.

The idea of starting Virgin Atlantic came about back when I was 28 years old and was catching a flight to the BVI to be reunited with Joan (who is now my lovely wife). When my flight was cancelled at the last minute, I was so disappointed. But I started to think, ‘what if there was another way…?’

Richard Branson sitting in a chair on the phone in his houseboat. Sam Branson as a boy, is standing on the arm of the chair looking out of the window
Image from the Branson family

I figured there was a whole plane load of people who wanted to get somewhere – all I needed was the plane. I went to the back of the airport, hired a plane, and found a blackboard. As a joke, I wrote ‘Virgin Airways: $39 single flight’, and filled up the flight with all the bumped passengers.

As we landed, a passenger said to me: “Virgin Airways isn’t too bad – smarten up the service and you could be in business.”

Black and white image of Richard Branson inside an aeroplane talking to a seated customer
Virgin Atlantic

This led to my second ‘what if…’ thought. I spent a lot of time travelling on planes, watching and signing bands and doing deals. Travelling by plane wasn’t a fun experience. The tickets were expensive, the service was bad, the food was worse, there was no entertainment and no competition that would push the airlines to do anything about it. I realised there was a gap in the market here to do something different and give passengers a great experience.

So, I wrote out a list of things I wanted to understand about leasing an aircraft. If I could lease one plane for one year and have the chance to return the plane, we would have a clear escape route if it all failed. It would be embarrassing, but we would limit our losses. By the end of the weekend, I had made up my mind: if we could limit everything to one year – the employment contracts, the leasing of the aircraft, the exchange exposure, and anything else that starting up a New York route involved – we would have protected the downsides, and it would be worth having a shot at it.

Richard Branson with Virgin Atlantic crew
Virgin Atlantic

I got on the phone to Boeing, and they were amused to hear an Englishman from the music business (Virgin Records) asking what kinds of deals were available on a jumbo jet. I spent all afternoon and all evening on the phone to them, and eventually I spoke to someone who could help me. They told me that Boeing did lease aircraft, and that they had a second-hand jumbo that they would seriously consider taking back after a year if things didn’t work out. We were onto something.

In the same way that I tend to make up my mind about people within 30 seconds of meeting them (not always accurately!), I also make up my mind about whether a business idea excites me within about 30 seconds too. I was very excited about this airline.

Richard Branson celebrates the inaugural Virgin Atlantic flight with champagne in front of photographers
Image from Virgin.com

I had lunch with Sir Freddie Laker, who gave me plenty of advice and things to watch out for. He told me: “British Airways will try to wipe you off the map like they did to me. Three words of wisdom: sue the bastards!” (That’s another story!). We also worked out the many things that Virgin Atlantic could do things differently. After sorting out endless waves of legal, financial, and commercial aviation licensing issues – Virgin Atlantic was in business. Plus, the deal with Boeing basically allowed us to return the aircraft to them after a year and be reimbursed for at least the original cost.

When everything was coming together, I remember asking David Tait (one of the key architects of our business plan) what he thought of the name. “Virgin Atlantic?” he snorted. “Nobody will ever set foot inside a plane called ‘Virgin.’ It’s ridiculous. Who would fly an airline that’s not prepared to go all the way?”

Richard Branson with his parents Ted and Eve holding a model Virgin Atlantic plane

Nevertheless, we did go the full distance! And along the way we hired cabin crew members who enjoyed their jobs and actually smiled, we introduced great entertainment options (and was the first airline to offer seatback screens), we built the most modern fleet in the sky, and opened sleek airport lounges… Oh, and let’s not forget the in-flight ice-creams! Joan also came up with the idea of donating any loose foreign change to charity – an initiative adopted by many other airlines to raise many millions for good causes.

Richard Branson on a Virgin Atlantic plane with the first seatback entertainment screen

Almost 40 years later, the wonderful team at Virgin Atlantic is still making people smile at 30,000ft – and it all started with a bumped flight and a ‘what if…’

Here’s the ‘what if’ moment that sparked Virgin StartUp. Stay tuned for more in this series!