Thirty-eight years ago, on June 22, 1984, Virgin Atlantic’s maiden flight, VS1, departed from London Gatwick for Newark, New York. The premier aircraft in the Virgin (VAH) fleet was a leased Boeing 747-200 aptly registered G-VIRG and christened ‘Maiden Voyager’.
Among the 250 passengers on board were celebrities, pop stars and Richard Branson himself – wearing a captain’s uniform. The maiden flight is said to have been a seven-hour party at 35,000 ft over the Atlantic, with Branson only realizing on the ground in New York that he had forgotten his passport.
And what was the goal of this multi-million-pound start-up adventure? According to the company’s founding motto, it was to make flying fun again. Over its 38 years, Virgin Atlantic has established itself as one Britain’s most well-known brands, synonymous with fun, soul and that famous red flair.
The airline quickly made its mark, sweeping industry awards and, by the end of the decade, it had acquired several additional aircraft and launched routes to JFK, Miami and Tokyo.
From its inception, Virgin Atlantic has drawn upon its owner’s experience in the music industry – the brand is innovative and refuses to accept the status quo, and it gained the world’s attention in an industry which, at the time, was still dominated by legacy carriers.
The Spice Girls at LAX posing next to Virgin Atlantic 747 Spice One in 2007. Image by Featureflash Photo Agency, Shutterstock.com
Determined to deliver a superior passenger experience, the airline was the first to offer an in-flight bar (a new space for upper class travelers to socialize) and it was the first airline to provide individual entertainment screens for all passengers.
In addition, over the years the uniforms for Virgin Atlantic have been created by iconic British designers, including Arabella Pollen, David and Elizabeth Emanuel – known for designing Princess Diana’s wedding dress -, John Rocha and, most recently, Vivienne Westwood.
For more than 30 years, the airline’s livery has included ‘The Flying Lady’, which in 2019 was restyled ‘Flying Icons’, featuring men and women who represent modern Britain and the four continents which Virgin (VAH) flies to.
More recently, along with the new ‘See the world differently’ campaign, Virgin (VAH) once again broke away from the industry norm, becoming the first British airline to allow cabin crew to have visible tattoos. The move followed the decision in 2019 to allow female cabin crew the option of not wearing make-up as well as introducing trousers as a uniform option.
Depart the everyday
In 1999, Branson signed an agreement to sell a minority stake to Singapore Airlines (SIA1) (SINGY) (SIA). The partnership lasted until 2012 when Delta agreed to purchase the 49% stake from SIA. Over the years, Virgin Atlantic has experienced a mixed financial performance.
Sir Richard Branson, founder of the Virgin Group in 2012. Image by Sergei Bachlakov, Shutterstock.com
Back in 2012, Virgin (VAH) attempted a short haul domestic operation with its ‘Little Red’ fleet comprising four A320s leased from Aer Lingus. The aim was to compete with BA by connecting Heathrow to Manchester, Edinburgh, and Aberdeen. But the operation was short-lived and was discontinued in 2015 due to low passenger numbers.
Today, the airline flies to destinations across Asia, North America, the Caribbean and Africa through its two permanent bases at Manchester and Heathrow. The base at Gatwick was closed during Virgin’s (VAH) fight for survival and subsequent consolidation in the pandemic.
Previously, the airline operated the Boeing 747, Airbus A340 and A320 aircraft. Along with the Airbus A340s, the 747 workhorse was retired early in March 2020 due to the Covid-19 pandemic.
Today, Virgin (VAH) operates a modern fleet of 36 aircraft, with a further 19 on order. The fleet is now one of the youngest long-haul fleets in the sky with an average age of seven years.
The fleet includes the Airbus A330-300 (10) along with next generation aircraft Boeing 787-9 (17), A350-1000 (nine) plus five on order and the A330-900 (14) due for delivery from autumn 2022.
Virgin Atlantic Boeing 787 in Hong Kong. Image by heychli, Shutterstock.com
Taking on the world
In recent years, Virgin (VAH) has made serious commitments to its future. Along with investing in new upper class and economy cabin products, the airline will rely on its next-generation fuel-efficient aircraft to help propel its balance sheets back into the black.
On May 25, 2022, the airline celebrated its first new US route since 2017 with the opening of London to Austin, Texas using its Boeing 787-9 aircraft.
As Virgin Atlantic approaches four decades of flying, the business hopes to return to profitability. We’ll be watching.