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California-based Virgin America launched its 16th route on Dec. 15 with the debut of its upscale, low-fare service to Palm Springs International Airport (PSP) from San Francisco International Airport (SFO), which was timed to provide winter getaways to fog-chilled Bay Area residents. East Coast passengers will also be able to thaw out in balmy desert climes, thanks to seasonal daily flights from John F. Kennedy International Airport (JFK) to PSP.
At least that’s how it’s supposed to work.
Frigid gusts of wind sweeping through the palms upon the inaugural touchdown at PSP caused Virgin group founder Sir Richard Branson to laugh that he’d been brought to typically sunny Palm Springs under false pretenses.
TravelAge West sat with Branson (or “SRB” as the official event schedule described him) on the slightly rowdy inaugural flight, during which he welcomed passengers over the plane’s intercom as flight attendants handed out celebratory red cocktails and Rat Pack impersonators crooned above the din of jet engines.
You have launched countless businesses and have even ventured into galactic travel with Virgin Galactic. Do you still get excited about new flights cruising at a mere 30,000 feet? I still get enormously excited. [Turns to Virgin publicist] Have I missed an inaugural flight yet? I hope not anyway … One? Oh dear. So, we’ve done 15 out of the 16 inaugural flights for Virgin America. It’s an airline I feel passionately about. I’ve flown a lot over the years on domestic flights in America. The experience has never been that great. We’ve tried to create an airline that is really special. I’m proud of what the team has done.
Do you feel that it’s important for you to be here?I need to play my part in supporting it. The fact that people know who I am means that, hopefully, I can sprinkle a little bit of dust on the new routes and make sure that they get better known. It gives the airline a leg up.
How do you feel Virgin America is doing? It’s doing great. We’ll be opening quite a lot of new routes over the next five years. We’ve got quite a lot of new planes coming. I think America needed more competition and more quality-based competition, and that’s what Virgin America has delivered.
At the ribbon-cutting ceremonies, you implied that the competition in the U.S. hadn’t been too friendly. What did you mean by that? There’s no question that they tried to snuff us out before we were even born. Alaska Airlines went to extraordinary lengths to try to persuade the Department of Transport not to give us the license. But, that’s behind us now. We’re now just competing — people have a choice. They choose which airline they want to fly on. Generally speaking, we find that if they try us once they normally come back time and time again. And, yes, it’s certainly David vs. Goliath because of our size. But, in three or four years’ time we’ll have 100 planes — we will be a fairly formidable force to be reckoned with.
You’re probably known as much for bringing attention to global issues as for your entrepreneurism. It’s the holidays right now. What advice do you have for people who want to make a difference out there?Every single one of us, even in a very small way, will get so much more satisfaction in life if we just do one little thing to make a difference. I just came from Africa where we brought over an American organization to give 500 deaf people hearing aids. If we could just get one person to hear, it would have been a worthwhile endeavor. I’ve just written a book called “Screw Business as Usual.” It’s about trying to get hundreds of thousands of us to get out there. If everybody could just do something, we can make a difference. It doesn’t have to cost a lot of money but, together, we can have a huge impact.
Sir Richard Branson and TravelAge West’s Ana Figueroa on the inaugural Virgin flight to Palm Springs. // © 2011 Ana Figueroa