Champagne corks began popping almost before the wheels tucked up last June aboard the maiden flight of Virgin Atlantic Airways, bound from Gatwick Airport, England to Newark, New Jersey. As the 473-seat Boeing 747 rumbled into the clouds, the electronic chords of a live rock band, Mint Julep, flooded the aisles. Up front, trickster Uri Geller entertained by psychically “bending” the silverware provided by Maxim’s. Elsewhere, passengers slipped on headphones to rock to the beat of the Eurythmics and Boy George. Young stewardesses clad in red, white and gray uniforms designed by Arabella Pollen, 23, who lists Princess Diana as a customer, patrolled the aisles.
No, this is no new route for ritzy Regent Air. The soaring jumbo jet with the Virgin logo splashed across its tail is the most recent entrant into the cheap flight market: flying across the Atlantic for $189. This summer Virgin flew 60,000 people on its twice-daily flights, a volume the major carriers, which charge a minimum of $579, couldn’t fail to notice.
Virgin, obviously, doesn’t offer the cardboard-lunchbox calibre flight: That’s not the style of blond, waggish, 33-year-old Richard Branson, founder and 85-percent owner of Virgin Group. Virgin is Britain’s second largest entertainment conglomerate (after Thorn EMI), worth $400 million; among its 60 companies is Virgin Records, which produces the Sex Pistols, Human League, Genesis and Boy George’s Culture Club. “People Express is sold out,” notes Branson from his office, which happens to be aboard a two-bedroom houseboat moored on a canal in London. “What we have to do is remind the public of what happened to Laker [when major airlines temporarily slashed fares] and make sure that they support us for two or three months in the winter so they can have cheap flights for the other nine or 10 months. There’s a need for the kind of airline we’re creating.”
By that Branson means good price with comfort. On Virgin Atlantic one can choose Upper Class for $1,929—and be spoiled rotten with catered meals, a butler, sleepers and a lounge. Or for $189 one can fly Economy—sacrificing some legroom—and get a choice of pop videos and six feature films, as well as a kids’ section featuring cartoons, ice cream and birthday cake. Branson wanted to call that class “Riff Raff,” but at the last minute got scared of offending frugal flyers. But he stuck to his guns in calling his in-flight magazine Hot Air.
A whimsical, ever entrepreneurial mogul, Branson listened when just last February American-born lawyer Randolph Fields, 32, called, proposing a new airline. “He rang me up out of the blue and said he met me 16 years ago when I was running a student magazine from a basement in Paddington,” says Branson. “I was completely skeptical, the same as when I first saw the Sex Pistols, but it caught my imagination.” Branson promptly agreed to fund the venture, giving Fields 25 percent of Virgin Atlantic and making him chief executive. Nonetheless, Branson insists “We always move cautiously. If the absolute worst came, we could bow out gracefully and afford to pay off all the ticket holders.”
Branson’s high-flying ways made him a millionaire before age 20. Born in Surrey, he was the eldest of three children of a judge and a ballet dancer. Enrolled in a boarding school, 15-year-old Branson chose to quit and move to a room in Paddington rather than give up Student, the magazine he had taken over. Using a variety of ruses and calling from pay phones, he signed up enough advertisers to put out his first issue of 50,000. Two years later he offered discount records to his burgeoning student readership, and the response was torrential.
Branson’s next hit followed a brush with the law. Caught trying to avoid paying taxes on records by claiming they were for export, he was fined $92,000. To pay off, he opened his first discount record store. Within three years he was out of debt and had 80 stores around London. His own record label was the next logical step and, by the 1970s, he was involved in feature films, cable and real estate.
Branson keeps tabs on his various companies during 15-hour workdays from his floating office, where he lived until moving to a house last winter with his girlfriend of six years, Joan Templeman, 37, and their 2½-year-old daughter, Holly. (He is divorced from an American painter.) Weekends are sacrosanct: The family drives to the country where Branson plays tennis, cricket and a mean game of bridge. Planning ahead, he already is plotting flights from England to Holland and even to Australia and New Zealand. “It’s nice,” he says, “if one can mix making money and doing something good.”