1 May 2009
Today, I’m going to the USA for a week and have deliberately chosen to fly with Virgin, rather than the other airlines that fly to Los Angeles.
It’s nearly 25 years since I first went across the Atlantic on a Virgin flight – at a time when the upstart airline only had one leased Boeing 747-200 that spent all its time going backwards and forwards between Gatwick and Newark.
The prohibitive cost of advertising throughout the whole of the USA also prompted the airline's founder to embark on a series of stunts, like crossing the Atlantic in a speed boat, that attracted huge amounts of (free) publicity on American TV news networks.
Right from the start, Richard Branson knew exactly how much it would cost him to hand the plane back to Boeing if the venture didn’t work out. He also had the benefit of a couple of top tips from Freddie Laker, whose transatlantic Skytrain business had only recently collapsed.
One was that the Boeing 747-200 would be a better bet than the DC10s used by Skytrain, because the Boeings were big enough to bring in extra revenue by carrying cargo as well as passengers.
The other was not to concentrate on the backpacker end of the market, as Skytrain had done, but to cater for business passengers too.
So the upstairs deck in the early Virgin flights to Newark were set aside for the cheekily named ‘Upper Class’, which was soon attracting enough customers for it to be extended into the front section of the main deck as well.
It was helped along by two neat marketing ploys. One was summed up in the slogan ‘fist class quality at business class prices’, and the other was that Upper Class passengers were handed a plain brown envelope during the flight, in which there was a free coach-class ticket for another flight across the Atlantic.
On one occasion, I sat next to an English stockbroker who was working in New York. As his company let him decide on which airline to use for his regular transatlantic trips, there was no contest – he always flew on Virgin because the free ticket meant that both his parents were flying with him (for nothing and not for the first time) in the back of the plane.
In those early days, Virgin made a real effort to run Upper Class like a club, with a games area and a bottomless bar where you could go and chat to the itinerant rock 'n roll groups for whom Virgin had already become the airline of choice.
As you’d expect in a club, there was also a visitors’ book, in which customers' comments heaped at least as much praise on Virgin as the scorn they poured on British Airways and other competitors.
Nearly a quarter of a century later, one of the entries is still stuck firmly in my mind, and confirms yet again how effective simple poetic techniques like rhythm, rhyme and/or assonance can be, whether you’re writing a speech, a presentation or a comment in Virgin Atlantic's visitors’ book.
It was at a time when Britain’s (then) second biggest airline, the long-since defunct British Caledonian, was running TV commercials that showed air hostesses in kilts dancing along the aisle to entertain passengers – which must have inspired one wag to compose the following ditty for the Upper Class visitors’ book:
'B-Cal girls are all very fine
But give me a virgin every time.'
(Until 8th May, Virgin permitting, I’ll be in the USA, from where I hope to be able to carry on putting posts on the blog – but don’t be surprised if there’s a slight reduction in output during the next week).