How Virgin has innovated across industries

Richard Branson has always said that in business there’s no point in doing something unless you’re radically different to the competition. With more than half a century in business, he’s clearly doing something right, take a look at some of the ways Virgin has innovated over the years…

Virgin Atlantic’s flat bed seats

Virgin Atlantic found themselves in a battle with British Airways to create the first lie-flat bed, and rushed the development of their seat. Richard explains: “Flat' is an interesting term. When I say that a door is flat, you probably think of a perpendicular surface, whereas if I say that a bed is flat, you automatically think of a horizontal one. The problem with our new 'lie-flat bed' was that while it was flat, it wasn't horizontal.

“In our rush to be first, we had taken the fastest route and produced a seat that converted to a flat bed that sloped at an angle of about 30 degrees. Passengers (including me) worried that after they drifted off to sleep, they might slide off!

“And while we were rushing to deliver our new idea, British Airways had gotten wind of our secret new seat and took their time to develop a truly horizontal lie-flat bed, beating us to the punch. We went back to the drawing board.”

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Adam Wells was one of the designers working on the project. “I was doing some research on what it would take and whether it would be possible to design beds – independent beds from seats – and install them on an aircraft. We were looking at bunk beds at one stage, I remember that being a loosely designed conceptual idea,” he says. “But I started drawing plans of our fleet and trying to figure out how many beds we could get in, understanding the spatial constraints, how best to optimise those beds and what we found was – retrospectively, quite obviously – that you really needed a seat and a bed for any individual to occupy the same or a very similar space. It's very inefficient if you do anything other than that. But what remained from that initial idea was the idea of a separate seat and a bed, which we actually continued through the project as it turned into the development of a new Business Class product. You can see that in the way that the seat turns over and transforms from being a seat into a flat bed, you get the benefits of both products, without having the compromises of either.

“We knew that we wanted to deliver a flat bed and we knew that customers really wanted that. But we didn't have a solution as to how we could deliver it whilst maintaining the same number of people in any zone of the aircraft so that's what we were generating, that's why it quickly turned into an exercise on managing space and figuring out how to optimise that. From start to finish it took about three and a half years to complete that project and have the seats installed ready for customers to use.”

Richard adds: “Virgin leapfrogged ahead of [the competition]. But that rush to be first cost us a lot. It was an expensive lesson.”

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Formula E

Virgin Racing was one of the founding teams of the FIA Formula E Championship, and has helped to raise the profile of the global electric motor racing series since it launched in 2014.

“The launch of the Formula E Championship is exciting news for racing fans but also for those that believe in developing the great electric cars of the future,” Richard said in 2014. 

“The need to create fast, dependable and durable race cars will help to accelerate the sector and showcase electric cars to a large global audience. With races around many famous city centres, I am expecting a lot of spectators, plenty of fun and some sparks flying as the competition hots up.”

But Formula E is about more than just entertainment, as DS Virgin Racing’s CTO Sylvain Filippi explains: “Motor racing used to be as much about innovation as sport and the technologies developed went back into the cars we used to drive. But these days, single-seater race cars have very little relevance to the one you drive at home. With electric cars there is a very real need for innovation. Take for example batteries. The big manufacturers are working hard to get more energy into batteries at a lower cost – battery size and range is one of the barriers to electric car popularity. But we will be working to accelerate that in order to win races and this tech will go back into improving domestic cars.

“Then there’s the marketing side. People don’t love electric cars and there’s still a lot of work to do to change perceptions. Racing can be a really powerful way of doing that. There used to be an old expression: ‘Win on Sunday, sell on Monday.’ Hopefully that’s what we can do with Formula E. With the Virgin team, we will be targeting young people who will be buying cars in the next five to 10 years – we want their first car to be electric.”

Virgin America’s fleet-wide inflight WiFi

In 2009, before many other airlines were even thinking about on-board connectivity, Virgin America became the first airline to offer fleet-wide in-flight WiFi. Unsurprisingly, this was widely popular with travellers. “We’ve seen an overwhelmingly positive response,” Porter Gale, VP of marketing at Virgin America, said at the time. “We’ve found that both business and leisure travellers are using the service at a growing rate, and many consider the availability of in-flight WiFi one of the key factors in their booking decision.”

In 2015, Virgin America upgraded their WiFi, investing in next generation satellite-based connectivity through a partnership with ViaSat. This saw 10 new planes fitted with the technology to deliver internet speeds typically eight to 10 times faster than any other in-flight WiFi system – allowing travellers to experience internet speeds similar to what they have at home. As a result, travellers on are able to stream content to their devices while in the air – including Netflix and other video and music services.

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“The idea behind our in-flight entertainment and connectivity offerings has always been to offer travellers more content, more interactivity and more of the choices they have access to on the ground,” Ken Bieler, Director of Product Design and Innovation at Virgin America said in 2015. “Since 2009, our guests have come to rely on and expect WiFi access on every flight, and we’ve continued to improve our WiFi product offering over the years. Bringing ViaSat’s satellite-based WiFi product to our new delivery aircraft will again allow us to make an industry-leading investment in our product. We are excited about this new technology and the possibility it opens up for WiFi coverage on our flights and for travellers who wish to stream video in-flight.”

For more on how Virgin has changed the world we live in, take a look at our timeline of Virgin’s history, which highlights some of Virgin’s greatest achievements.

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