With his mass of wavy blond hair, faded blue jeans, and wide ivory smile, Sir Richard Branson, 57, looks more like a middle-age rock star than a billionaire businessman. And in a way, he's both: A dauntless aviator who has circumnavigated the globe at record-breaking speeds and an uninhibited entrepreneur whose Virgin Group—an international conglomerate of some 200 companies—pervades popular culture through media (Virgin Records), travel (Virgin Atlantic), wireless communication (Virgin Mobile), and the fight against global warming (Virgin Earth). In his spare time, Branson plays the role of ubercelebrity, hobnobbing with Nelson Mandela, Al Gore, Jimmy Carter, Stephen Hawkins, and Pamela Anderson (he once appeared in an episode of Baywatch). We recently caught up with Sir Richard in San Francisco, the home of his latest company, Virgin America, a low-cost airline that launched last summer. Here's what he had to say about the state of U.S. air travel, and what he plans to do about it.
Q Given the staggering lack of success in the American airline industry over the past few years, why would you get into this game now?
A I've always said the easiest way to become a millionaire is to start out a billionaire then go into the airline business. But actually, yes, as far as American air carriers are concerned, the graveyard is vast. Pan Am, TWA, People Express, Eastern, and many, many others have gone bankrupt. So I come into this with my eyes open. The answer isn't to get an accountant and crunch the numbers to death. I believe the way to be successful in this business is to create the best environment for the customer. Get every little detail right. If you're the best in your field, people will seek you out. The best never go bankrupt.
Q How do you like flying in America?
A I absolutely hate it. I love coming to this country and visiting American cities and attractions. But every time I have to go to an airport and fly internally, the experience is ghastly. The service, especially.
Q Why has it gotten so bad?
A Partly, it's an infrastructure problem. Because the infrastructure hasn't been attended to the way it should be—and the way it has been in many European countries—there's too much stress on the system. And it affects the air traffic control systems to the flight crew on down the line.
Q What do you think the problem is?
A I think it's a total lack of imagination with some of the chief executives. Airlines are trying to operate on a business model that's not sustainable; they're not investing in the product, and so you have fleets of old planes that aren't well maintained. This causes leadership and frontline employees to lose faith in each other. When that happens, it shows in the marketplace. That's why you're seeing an astonishingly high dissatisfaction rate with some of the big airlines.
Q Is that why flight crews seem so unhappy lately?
A Sure. It's demoralizing to not be given the tools to succeed at your job. If all the little details are right on a plane—and when the things that are broken and promptly fixed—I believe the crew will be a lot happier. And so will the passengers.
Q With the launch of Virgin America you've raised the bar for in-flight comfort, adding leather seats, mood lighting, and touch-screen TVs with satellite programming. Do you think these amenities will ease the stress of passengers even though more than 30 percent of them aren't reaching their destination on time?
A I was just on one of our flights and there was a child who didn't want to get off the plane when we landed. He was having so much fun. If our flight was delayed, I honestly believe he would have been happy. And he wouldn't have been the only one. When the experience of flying is so miserable—like it has become in this country—people are uncomfortable on the plane from the start. It's our [Virgin America's] job to make absolutely sure the customers don't want to get off the plane.
Q You've traveled in jets, trains, speed boats, hot-air balloons—even a winged tricycle: What is your preferred mode of transport?
A Recreationally, I've always loved ballooning. In fact, I just returned from a trip to Kenya where I went ballooning with my father and son over the wildebeest migration. That was amazing. But when it comes to pure comfort, I'll take a jet.
Q Your company Virgin Galactic plans to bring travelers into the cosmos as soon as 2009. Are we really ready for suborbital tourism?
A I sure hope so, because we're moving ahead full steam. When I'm doing a talk to a crowd of 1,000 people and ask, Who wants to go to space? I'd say about 992 hands go up. If the price is affordable and the passenger is guaranteed a return ticket there are very few people who wouldn't want to go into space. It's really the next step in air travel. There will be an enormous demand for it.
Q Do you see a low-fare spaceflight program for Virgin in the future?
A You know, that's a great idea.
Photography by Rob Griffith/AP Photo
This article was first published in January 2008. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.