Virgin America, Virgin Group Are Taking Off, Much Like Billionaire Richard Branson

PHOTO: Richard BransonPlayMax Faulkner/The Fort Worth Star-Telegram/AP Photo
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A billionaire kicks off his shoes, jumps on a nearby ottoman and asks the crowd gathered round to blast away.

Clearly, this is not your average rich guy, but doing the expected has never been Richard Branson's style. The founder of the vast Virgin empire was in Dallas earlier this month (at the behest of one of the many charitable groups he champions), and took some took time out -- on the ottoman -- to meet with members of Virgin America's miles program, Elevate, to ask how it could be improved.

He got an earful. There were some critics ("Why doesn't the airline fly to the Caribbean so I can use my reward miles there?"), but he heard mostly about how much they really, really liked him, and the airline. Several Elevate members, also elites with American Airlines' AAdvantage program, went so far as to tell Branson they'd forgo AA miles for the sheer pleasure of the Virgin America flight experience.

Uh, when's the last time you heard "pleasure" and "flight" in the same sentence?

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The whole not-so-secret mystique behind Branson's Virgin Group, a conglomerate of airlines, media, tech companies and so much more, seems to be that business can be practical and fun. You could say something similar about Apple, but the late Steve Jobs was not known for arriving at public appearances surrounded by supermodels, a la Branson.

But no beautiful women were in evidence when we sat down for a brief but wide-ranging chat the other day: me, Branson and Virgin America CEO David Cush (by the way, Branson's Virgin Group has only a 25 percent stake in the U.S. airline, the most a foreign entity can own by law).

On the bankruptcy of AMR Corp., the parent of American Airlines, Branson said, "Filing for Chapter 11 is a bunch of bull. Why should they be allowed to screw their creditors? Let 'em fail."

I brought up a recent memo from Southwest CEO Gary Kelly in which he claimed legacy carriers returning from bankruptcy are leaner, meaner competitors to the low-cost carriers -- such as Virgin America -- and that ultimately there were few differences between them. Sir Richard (he was knighted in 2000) narrowed his eyes and gave me a disbelieving look.

I pressed on, pointing out that a lot of the old mainline airlines have ordered new planes that come with many of the bells and whistles Virgin America is so proud of, including its signature "mood-lighting." CEO Cush's response: There will always be differences in the Virgin brand, thanks to its little touches of luxury and the way they treat people, and he cited things like being able to order food from your iPad or seat-back screen whenever you're hungry without waiting for a cart to roll by as any passenger can do on a Virgin America plane.

And price still matters. "When we began flying to Dallas [in Dec. 2010]," said Cush, "ticket prices dropped 50 percent. They're still down about 30 percent from where they had been, and that's due to Virgin."

Prices aside, one thing that still sticks in travelers' craws are those annoying bag fees, and Virgin America is neither best nor worst, charging $25 for a first checked bag and the same for bags two through 10. Cush bristles at fee critics, trotting out the tired metaphor about how Wrigley Field charges for hot dogs and popcorn. I respond by saying stadium vendors never used to give you those hot dogs for free. Cush said airlines never would have given free bags, either, had it not been for government regulation before 1978 when prices were set by the feds, which guaranteed airline profits.

Branson's attention, meanwhile, is dropping in and out of the conversation as he eagerly awaits updates from an aide on the Newcastle-Manchester United football match. The Newcastle team is sporting the Virgin logo on its shirts for the first time, and Branson is following the scoring closely (Newcastle won).

His attention returns when the talk turns to the nuts and bolts of business. I wondered how the man the New Yorker described as the "highly personable British kazillionaire" decides what to take on next. His Virgin Group has had a global impact on the music industry, media, travel (including upcoming suborbital space flights on Virgin Galactic), but what is it that makes the next venture appealing? Branson said he takes all factors into consideration, including potential payoffs or drawbacks, but it ultimately comes down to his own business intuition. "And yeah," he said matter-of-factly, "you win some, and sometimes you lose."

I asked the 61-year-old about the fate of Virgin: Has Branson thought about a succession plan, as Apple's Jobs was reportedly reluctant to do? "Unlike Steve Jobs, I learned a long time ago to delegate," says Branson, adding that he's not a 'puppet-master' tied to his brand. Branson said the executives already in place (and here he nodded at David Cush) are doing just fine.

Speaking of Apple, I jumped in with a device question that seemed more polite than the obligatory briefs versus boxers query. "Android or iPhone?" I asked. A brief look of puzzlement passed over his face, until he conferred with an associate. "Android," said Branson, cheerfully.

Despite all the sit-down interviews Branson does, and all the personal appearances he makes on behalf of his empire with celebrities and those models so often in tow, he is said to be a shy person by those who know him. I'll have to take that on faith.

But let us return to Richard Branson the rock star. At the Elevate members meeting, he posed for countless photos with great good-nature as fan after fan handed camera or phone to one of Branson's business associates to do the honors. Then Branson recognized former AMR Corp. CEO and current Virgin America Chairman Donald Carty as the man behind the lens.

"Hey!" he shouted, laughing. "You can't turn my chairman of the board into the event photographer!" Carty, however, kept calmly snapping away.

Related links:

Airlines with the Most Luxurious First Class

Virgin America CEO Speaks Out

Virgin America Wins Best "Premium Class" Honors Again

5 Ways to Travel in Luxury

Virgin America's Virgin Voyage to Dallas

Southwest CEO Warns Costs Too High

Virgin Galactic Taking Reservations for Suborbital Flights

This work is the opinion of the columnist and does not reflect the opinion of ABC News.

Rick Seaney is one of the country's leading experts on airfare, giving interviews and analysis to news organizations that include ABC News, the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, Reuters, the Associated Press and Bloomberg. His website,, offers consumers free, new-generation software, combined with expert insider tips to find the best airline ticket deals.