Virgin Atlantic at 40: A Look Back at the Airline that Made Flying Fun

Celebrating 40 years of fun in the skies with Virgin Atlantic! Learn about its exciting history and plans for the future in the aviation industry.

Forty years ago, on June 22, 1984, a second-hand jumbo jet called Maiden Voyager tore down the runway at Gatwick airport en route to New York and disappeared into an ashen sky. On board were celebrities, media titans, and a buccaneering entrepreneur named Richard Branson, who had made millions by signing the Sex Pistols to his Virgin record label. This was the inaugural flight of Virgin Atlantic, and it was the start of a new era in aviation.


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The Beginning of an Era

Virgin Atlantic VS1 turned into the greatest party in the sky. Butlers served beluga caviar and Dover sole with 1982 Chassagne-Montrachet to guests in all cabins. The in-flight entertainment was the classical cellist Julian Lloyd Webber, brother of Andrew, performing live. So thick were the cigarette and alcohol fumes that billowed out of the door of the 747 after it landed in Newark, goes the tale, the ground staff almost fainted on the air jetty.

Few people, including most Virgin executives, thought the airline would survive. Yet tomorrow, Branson — now Sir Richard — will host another sky-high party to mark its 40th birthday. Two Virgin jets, one from London and one from Manchester, will fly to Las Vegas for a “Love at first flight” pool party at the city’s Virgin hotel. They will be packed with the airline’s longest-serving staff, some of whom were on that first flight, plus a few famous faces.

A Fight for Survival

Virgin Atlantics First Flight
Virgin Atlantics First Flight

It’s a moment to savor but there’s no time to sit back. After four decades of “surviving against the odds”, Branson once again finds himself fighting to keep Virgin Atlantic aloft. His arch-rival, British Airways, is investing tens of billions of pounds to improve service after a wretched few years. The snazzy Gulf carriers, such as Emirates, are stealing his best ideas, adding bars and showers to their planes and spas to their lounges. While most other airlines are racking up record profits thanks to the post-pandemic travel boom, Virgin recorded a pre-tax loss of £139 million last year. The last time it made a profit was 2016.

To convince travelers he still flies higher, Branson is introducing new perks for economy and business-class passengers, including “a seat that is better than British Airways first class”. He also plans to return to Gatwick airport after pulling out during Covid. Of all the businesses he has started — music, trains, gyms, a bank, cola, vodka, weddings, hotels — the airline is his favorite and “I’ll fight tooth and nail to keep it going”, he says.

The Spirit of Virgin

Branson transformed aviation from a high-price, low-quality chicken-or-beef form of travel — “Everyone hated it!” — into an experience you looked forward to. Virgin was cheaper than its rivals. You could get a London to New York economy return in the 1980s for about £200, half what most of the big airlines charged at the time. Yet it was — gasp! — fun. Sporting trademark lipstick-red uniforms with matching shoes and handbags, its trolley dollies (it was the 1980s) served ice cream in the cheap seats. From 1991, for the first time, there were seatback TV screens in all cabins. They were “the most expensive TVs in the world”, Branson jokes.

Those jumbos, which soon started flying from Heathrow and Gatwick to the Caribbean, Africa and Asia as well as the US, had names that harked back to the golden age of the New York and Los Angeles jet set: Uptown Girl, Leading Lady. Branson put the big seats on the upper deck and called business class Upper Class, a name that has endured long after Virgin axed its 747s. (Mercifully his plan to call economy class Riff Raff was jettisoned.)

Virgin used nudge-nudge, wink-wink ads and other “cheeky” marketing methods to attract attention — but Branson won’t celebrate in Vegas tomorrow by turning Kate Moss or Pamela Anderson upside down on the wing of one of his aircraft, as he used to when marking a milestone or launching a route. “I’ve lived long enough to know times change,” he says.

The Future of Virgin Atlantic

Virgin Atlantic's The Loft in Upper Class
Virgin Atlantic’s The Loft in Upper Class

It’s not hard to understand why the airline is Branson’s favorite. He transformed aviation from a high-price, low-quality chicken-or-beef form of travel into an experience you looked forward to. Virgin was cheaper than its rivals, yet it was fun. Sporting trademark lipstick-red uniforms with matching shoes and handbags, its trolley dollies served ice cream in the cheap seats. From 1991, for the first time, there were seat-back TV screens in all cabins.

Those jumbos, which soon started flying from Heathrow and Gatwick to the Caribbean, Africa and Asia as well as the US, had names that harked back to the golden age of the New York and Los Angeles jet set: Uptown Girl, Leading Lady. Branson put the big seats on the upper deck and called business class Upper Class, a name that has endured long after Virgin axed its 747s.

Virgin used nudge-nudge, wink-wink ads and other “cheeky” marketing methods to attract attention. Branson himself was the face of the airline, and he cast himself as David versus Goliath, taking on the big carriers like British Airways.

Today, Virgin Atlantic is still fighting to keep aloft, but Branson is confident that the airline will outlive him and his children. He plans to keep it in the family, with his children Sam and Holly taking over the airline in the future.

FAQs

  1. When did Virgin Atlantic start operating?
    Virgin Atlantic started operating on June 22, 1984, with its inaugural flight from Gatwick to New York.
  2. Who is the founder of Virgin Atlantic?
    Richard Branson
  3. What is unique about Virgin Atlantic’s branding?
    Virgin Atlantic’s branding is unique because it punches way above its weight, offering all the routes, comfort, and reliability of a giant carrier with only 44 planes and 5.3 million passengers a year.
  4. What are some of Virgin Atlantic’s innovations?
    Some of Virgin Atlantic’s innovations include being the first to introduce seat-back TVs, the first big carrier to introduce premium economy, the first international airline to create a bar with stools on board its jets, and the first to offer customers a dedicated security line at Heathrow.
  5. What are Virgin Atlantic’s plans for the future?
    Virgin Atlantic plans to introduce new perks for economy and business-class passengers, return to Gatwick airport, and announce new routes to North America and beyond. The airline also aims to be carbon neutral by 2050.
Jed Stafford
Jed Stafford

MilesGeek was founded by Jed Stafford, a seasoned traveler with over a decade of experience. The concept of MilesGeek emerged after Jed booked numerous around-the-world itineraries using points and miles. Along the journey, a curious realization dawned upon him: his passion lay not in the intricacies of daily mileage hacks, but rather in the captivating narratives of the people and places encountered during travel.

As MilesGeek evolved, it attracted other writers who contributed compelling content. The name now reflects the number of miles we travel each year more so than reward miles.

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