On the heels of Alaska Airlines’ announcement that it will soon do away with the Virgin America brand, after having purchased the airline last year to the tune of $2.6 billion, Virgin Atlantic inaugurated daily service from London to Seattle on March 27.
Branson had publicly opposed the merger, but as a minority shareholder of Virgin America, there wasn’t much he could do. The new route will allow the Virgin brand to retain a presence in the Pacific Northwest, and perhaps help to restore a bit of Branson’s entrepreneurial dignity. The route had been announced last year, not long after news first broke about the sale of Virgin America to Alaska Airlines.
The new Virgin Atlantic flight replaces Delta’s daily Seattle-London service, and is the result of a joint venture between the two airlines that will add seating capacity to the route, along with what one would expect will be a more enjoyable flight experience. Virgin Atlantic’s 787-9 can accommodate about 60 more passengers than the Delta 767-300ER it replaced, which serves to increase the overall route capacity by about 40,000 seats per year, according to data provided by the airline.
In a simultaneous announcement, Delta said it will use that 767 to launch seasonal service from Portland, Ore., to London beginning May 26, offering what will be Portland’s first and only flight to the U.K.
At a post-landing press conference, Branson commented on the end of the Virgin America brand saying, “I genuinely believed they would treasure the brand, treasure the people, treasure the product,” he said, referring to Alaska Airlines. “The last thing they would do would be to rip the heart out of it, which seems like what they are going to do.”
Further lamenting the demise of his carefully-constructed Virgin America brand, Branson said, “I just wonder what it was that Alaska bought. Why did they bother?”
Carrying on with a marketing story, Branson shared an anecdote exemplifying how he handles the marketing of his airlines. The airplane-shaped salt and pepper shakers — “they also kind of look like little sheep,” he said — that are used in the premium cabin are often stolen by passengers.
“My accountant called me up and told me we were spending $2.5 million a year on them, and asked what I wanted to do about it,” he said. Instead of simply switching to something cheaper, he had the idea of stamping “Pinched from Virgin Atlantic” stamped on the bottom of each one. “They’ve become some of our best advertising,” he said, adding that they can be found on dinner tables across London.
A friend who’s worked in aviation for decades once told me that nobody knows how to throw a party like Virgin does, and, true to form, the service rollout was a very festive affair. A private party was held the following night at a nightclub in Seattle, and Branson’s comments at that party were much more restrained and on-message. But it was indeed a heck of a party, with a live performance by English singer Raye (who sang a song that she composed on the flight to Seattle), a DJ, and a very energetic dance act.
Welcome to Seattle, Virgin Atlantic!