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

PHOTO: Richard Branson

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."

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