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History: How a cancelled flight prompted the formation of Virgin Atlantic

A canceled flight to the British Virgin Islands led to the creation of a new airline.


Since 1984, Virgin Atlantic has been a disrupter in the long-haul travel market. From starting with a single Boeing 747 and a cramped office in central London, it has become one of the most desirable and luxurious ways to travel across the Atlantic. That being said, the entire company would not have been created if not for a canceled flight to the British Virgin Islands.


Early beginnings


As the story goes, a 28-year-old Englishman from the music business, Richard Branson, was waiting for his flight from Puerto Rico to the British Virgin Islands to see his now wife, Joan. However, his flight was canceled at the last minute as there were not enough passengers, prompting Branson to find another way to travel. Branson believed enough people wanted to reach the destination; all he needed was the aircraft.


This prompted Branson to go to the back of the airport and hire a plane; he jokinglywrote ‘Virgin Airways: $39 single flight.’ He went around to all the passengers bumped from his original flight and filled up an aircraft.


After landing, one of the passengers told Branson that if he “smarten up the service, you could be in business.” This gave Branson the impetus to consider doing it again. Seeing how easy it was to fill up a plane and air travel offering a much different kind of experience than we’re used to today, he decided to do it again.


The making of the carrier


As his initial transportation, Branson secured a Boeing 747 on a one-year lease as, if the business did not go as he hoped, he would have a clear escape route. Althoughit would be an embarrassment, it would limit the losses. However, everything from employment contracts, exchange exposure, the leasing of the aircraft, and any othercosts would be limited to one year. With protected downsides, Branson reached out to Boeing and got a hold of a second-hand Boeing 747 registered G-VIRG. He said,

“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 with 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.”


After sorting through countless licensing issues and devising a business plan that separated the airline from the competition, Virgin Atlantic was in business. On June 22, 1984, the maiden Virgin Atlantic Airways aboard a Boeing 747 took place between London–Gatwick and Newark Liberty and was a smashing success.


Innovator at heart


From a young age, Richard Branson has always looked at problems to solve. In his blog, he shares that his inspiration for new business ideas comes from things that frustrate him, and he looks for a solution.


In Virgin Atlantic’s case, any passengers bumped off a flight or had an unexpected cancellation can relate to Branson. From the start, Virgin Atlantic was a passenger-first carrier and has always gone above and beyond for its passengers to offer them the best level of service.


Virgin Atlantic is not the first and will not be the last Branson company. From his communications company, Virgin Media, to his hotel chain, Virgin Hotels, and the original record label Virgin Records, he spans various industries. Moreover, Virgin continues to innovate with Virgin Galactic, which recently launched its first private space flight in August.


Since its inception, Virgin Atlantic has continuously operated differently and has built a loyal customer base. Richard Branson’s bumped flight to the British Virgin Islands inspired him to create the airline we all know today.


Joshua Kupietzky / Simple Flying



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