Some years ago, a young Richard Branson had been on holiday with his wife to be in the British Virgin Islands. Waiting to catch a flight to Puerto Rico, it was announced that their American Airlines service had been cancelled. Branson called a charter company and enquired about hiring a plane to fly himself and the other stranded passenger to Puerto Rico. It would cost $2,000 and if he could fill the flight it would be $39 each. Making his way round the airport and advertising the ‘Virgin Airways’ flight, he quickly sold all of the seats and they were on their way. As the lucky set of passengers disembarked, one man turned to Mr Branson and said,
“Virgin Airways isn’t too bad. Smarten up the service a little and you could be in business”.
Six years later on June 22, 1984 the first
Virgin Atlantic flight took off from London’s Gatwick Airport (LGW), bound for New York Newark (EWR), using a leased Boeing 747-200 (G-VIRG) called ‘Maiden Voyager’.
The rest as they say is history and what a history it has been. From battles with British Airways (BA), to breaking new ground with constant innovations and re-inventions, Virgin Atlantic is a name now synonymous with style, glitz and ‘Bringing Back The Glamour’.
Here we take a look back at one of the worlds best-loved airlines with some historic pictures.
Alan Hellary, Richard Branson and Randolph Fields launch Virgin Atlantic at the 1984 press conference.
Sir Richard Branson with the cabin crew of Virgin’s maiden flight between LGW-EWR on Boeing 747-200 G-VIRG ‘Maiden Voyager’.
As the Jumbo-jet taxied towards Gatwick’s runway for the airlines maiden take-off, a PA was made inviting passengers to join in the excitement and watch the take off from the flight deck. The Inflight entertainment screen was switched on in the passenger cabins showing the view in the cockpit, with the pilots and flight engineer. As the aircraft sped down the runway, some passengers began to get a little concerned that the crew were not paying any attention at all and as the aircraft lifted off the tarmac, they were even more alarmed when the 3 men reclined their seats and the captain pulled a joint from behind his ear and began to smoke it! Silence fell over the cabin as the passengers looked at each other in horror. Then, just as people were beginning to panic the men turned to face the camera. It was Richard Branson, Ian Botham and Viv Richards and they had filmed the ‘spoof’ a day earlier in the airlines flight simulator.
Branson celebrates on the steps of ‘Maiden Voyager’, with a bottle of champagne after the successful first flight.
Virgins first ever aircraft Boeing 747-200 G-VIRG ‘Maiden Voyager’ .
The initial Virgin Atlantic cabin crew uniform was a little different to the one we see today.
The second uniform incarnation was designed in 1991 and launched the now iconic Virgin ‘Ruby Red’.
The airline introduced the Boeing 747-400 in January 1994. The first of the type was G-VFAB or ‘Lady Penelope’ and coincided with the launch of a new route between Heathrow and Hong Kong.
G-VFAB was renamed ‘Spice One’ in 2007, with the Spice Girls in attendance to launch their world tour.
Virgin and British Airways have always had a volatile relationship. This came to head during the ‘Dirty Tricks Campaign’ of the early 90’s which saw Virgin receive a pay out of over £3 million. Branson later donated all of his proceeds from the case to his staff
In December 1993, the airline received its first Airbus A340-300 G-VBUS and named her ‘Lady In Red’ during a special ceremony, attended by HRH Diana, Princess Of Wales.
In 30 years the airline has never suffered a fatal accident. On November 5, 1997 G-VSKY, an A340-300 crashed at LHR after suffering a landing gear malfunction. Thanks to the skills and bravery of both the pilots and cabin crew, all passengers were evacuated safely with just a handful of minor injuries.
Virgin employ’s thousands of cabin crew who are extensively trained in all areas, from first aid to exceptional customer service.
Virgin was the first airline in the world to offer a ‘super-economy’ service. Known as ‘Mid-Class’, the cabin was a forerunner to todays Premium Economy cabins.
The airline was also the first in the world to offer personal inflight entertainment for all passengers in all classes with seat back televisions.
In 1997, following BA’s decision to remove the union flag from its aircraft, Virgin introduced a Union flag design on its winglets and changed the red dress on their ‘Scarlet Lady’ to a union flag with the tag line ‘Britain’s Flag Carrier’, a blatant challenge to BA’s traditional role as the UK’s flag carrier.
Virgin has never been one to shy away from a little tongue-in-cheek mockery of its rivals and this was a classic, ahead of BAs launch of the London Eye.
In December 1999, it was revealed that the Virgin Group had agreed to sell a 49% stake in the airline to Singapore Airlines for £600M, with Mr Branson retaining the other 51%.
The airlines first A340-600 was delivered in 2002. At the time the worlds longest passenger jet, it carried the slogan ‘4 engines 4 long haul’. Virgin claimed at the time, that its 4 engined jets were much safer on long haul routes than its rivals, who were now ordering twin-engined ETOPS airliners. The slogan was quickly removed when they ordered their A330 and B787s.
Virgin Atlantic has won countless awards since 1986.
Virgin Atlantic’s most recent ‘Upper Class’ offering known as the ‘Dream Suite’ was introduced in 2012 and is to be rolled out across the rest of the fleet by 2015.
Virgin has always strived to bring back the ‘jet-set’ era, both in the air and on the ground. This was further enhanced when the airline opened its ‘Virgin Clubhouse at Heathrow’ in March 2006. Amongst the many unique features of the flagship lounge are a cocktail bar, a hair salon, a Cowshed spa, a brasserie and a games room.
In 2008, Virgin became the worlds first airline to operate a bio-fuel powered Boeing 747 flight between London and Amsterdam.
In December 2012, Branson announced that he was going to give BA a “true run for its money” after Singapore Airlines agreed to sell its 49% share to Delta Airlines for £223.5M. The joint venture will give a 25% share in flights between the US and UK.
Virgin introduced the Airbus A330-300 into its fleet in 2011 with the first aircraft G-VSXY ‘Beauty Queen’ operating from its Manchester base.
Branson shaped Ice cubes were created in 2012 to celebrate the launch of the airlines new in-flight bar. Incorporating a raft of new innovations the bar includes new champagne coupe glasses, enhanced mood lighting and a new seating system to facilitate the most comfortable social experience in the air.
In true over-the-top style, Virgin’s short-haul venture ‘Little Red’ was launched by Sir Richard in March 2013, with flights from Heathrow to Aberdeen, Edinburgh and Manchester.
Virgin Atlantic cabin crew have been the face of the airline for 30 years. The stunning boys and girls in their ‘ruby red’ uniforms have become an iconic feature of airports around the globe. They are frequently voted the best looking cabin crew in the world.
Virgin Atlantic by Vivienne Westwood.
The airline was one of the earliest customers for the Airbus A380 – with big dreams for what was to become its flagship aircraft with onboard Spa’s, suites and casinos. But the aircraft would never appear in Virgin Atlantic’s livery with the order of six aircraft eventually being cancelled in 2018.
Virgin Atlantic took delivery of its first Boeing 787-9 ‘Dreamliner’ in 2014 and placed the aircraft on its Boston route. The first of its state-of-the-art jets was named ‘Birthday Girl’ in honour of the airlines 30th anniversary and features a stylised ‘flying lady’ carrying a glass of bubbly.
In July 2017 it was announced that Air France-KLM would be acquiring a 31 per cent stake in Virgin Atlantic for £220 million. The purchase would be part of a new $13 billion transatlantic joint venture between Air France-KLM, Virgin Atlantic and Delta Airlines, with over 300 daily transatlantic flights and 96 non-stop destinations.
On March 1, 2019 it was announced that a consortium which included Virgin Atlantic had become the new owners of troubled UK regional carrier Flybe. Despite numerous unsuccessful forays in to the UK domestic market it, the regional airline “will be rebranded to a Virgin Atlantic brand in due course” but will be run by Connect Airways which “will operate independently to Virgin Atlantic”
On Monday February 18, 2019 A Virgin Atlantic Dreamliner travelling from LA to London set a new speed record when the jet reached 801mph over Pennsylvania as it rode the fastest jet stream on record, blowing east at 231mph. The velocity only lasted briefly, but was far faster than the usual cruising speed of 561mph for the Boeing aircraft. The winds high above the ground helped Flight VS8, half-way into its journey from Los Angeles to London, arrive at Heathrow nearly an hour ahead of schedule.
Virgin has also been renowned for their iconic TV adverts, some of which can be found here –
Ever wondered what it’s like to work for this fabulous airline? Check out our
‘Day in the Life’ look at being a Virgin Atlantic hostie. And for more information on the carriers iconic uniform, head over to our ‘Style in the Aisles’ Top Ten Cabin Crew Uniforms of 2014.
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