Virgin Atlantic: Happy Birthday!

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Virgin Atlantic recently celebrated 20 years of flying to South Africa, and as part of the celebrations the airline’s founder, Sir Richard Branson, joined a group of journalists on a flight between Johannesburg and London. Editor Dylan Rogers took the opportunity to grab 10 minutes with Branson in the Virgin Atlantic clubhouse at O.R. Tambo International Airport.

Richard Branson isn’t surprised that Virgin Atlantic has survived 20 years of flying to South Africa.

richard-branson“Jo’burg has been one of our most successful routes throughout the 20 years,” he says. “I’m more surprised that Virgin Atlantic has survived 33 years when all our competitors have gone bust!”

For those South Africans with an affinity for the Virgin brand and its slightly different take on air travel, Branson offers some good news.

“It’s great that the new runway at Heathrow has been announced,” he says. “It will enable us to fly to Cape Town, for example, which we had to pull out of because we only have a limited number of slots at Heathrow, and we have to use them for the most profitable routes. Once there’s a new runway, we’ll definitely be able to come back into Cape Town, maybe even before, if we can get a slot.”

Branson’s ‘love affair’ with South Africa is well documented, with the businessman a regular traveller to the country over the past 20 years. He built a friendship with former president Nelson Mandela, brought the Virgin Active and Money brands to South Africa in the 1990s, and enjoys visiting his private game lodge, Ulusaba, whenever he gets the chance.

But when he launched the Virgin Atlantic Johannesburg service back in 1996, it was not due to sentiment.

“There were just two airlines, BA and SAA,” he says. “The airfares were high and there was no competition, and the quality of service was pretty awful. Virgin Atlantic shook it up and we now have something like 30% market share, despite the fact that we only have one plane flying this route and the competitors have two each.”

The international airline landscape has changed dramatically in the past 20 years, with consolidation just one of the major themes to emerge. Unsurprisingly, Branson has strong views on this feature of the market.

“We fought for years to stop British Airways and American Airlines from colluding and working together with our ‘No Way BAA’ campaign,” he says. “They finally were allowed to, so we then consolidated with Delta Air Lines – we had to, to survive. So, there is less choice and I think the competition authorities made a mistake in allowing there to be less choice, but that’s the new world we find ourselves in.”

As one of the most successful entrepreneurs of the past 40 years, Branson has built a reputation as a visionary, with the Virgin brand attached to everything from music to trains, gyms, aviation, insurance, mobile phones and hotels. Sure, he’s had his failures, but also plenty of successes, and he’s not afraid to venture into previously unchartered territory. So, what’s the next big thing in aviation, specifically?

“With our space programme Virgin Galactic, we hope to one day be building planes that will go much, much quicker than any plane has ever gone before, using space-ship technology,” says Branson.

He says he believes that this technology is still roughly 20 years away, in terms of commercial use, but Branson has no doubt it will happen.

“There’s two approaches that we’re working on,” he says. “The first one is sub-orbital flight, travelling at about 4,000 miles an hour, and the other is orbital flight, travelling at about 17,500 miles an hour. So, with the one, you could go from London to Australia in about an hour, whilst the other would take you three or four hours.”

That certainly would be a game-changer. But what about closer to home? There was a time when Virgin Atlantic flew to Ghana (Accra) and Kenya (Nairobi), along with its existing routes to South Africa and Nigeria. So, what are the airline’s plans for Africa, besides the possible Cape Town route?

“Until we have more runway space at Heathrow, there won’t be a lot more expansion from us, and we’re unfortunately a few years off from that,” says Branson. “That’s what has held us back, but one day we’ll be competing with BA on most of their routes.”

British Airways, you’ve been warned!