This week I’m writing about all things Virgin Atlantic. Today, an article written by a former Virgin Atlantic cabin crew member. It’s interesting to see how loyal current and former crew are to Virgin and Sir Richard Branson – contrast this with British Airways staff, where morale is low and staff are suspicious of every move made by Alex Cruz.
If you missed the previous articles this week, here are the links:
If you currently work for, or previously worked for, Virgin Atlantic and have a story, good or bad, to share, please send it to firstname.lastname@example.org
Why Virgin Atlantic should survive – by former cabin crew member, Dave Robbins
All of you who are watching gleefully, or just with indifference as the Virgin empire struggles to stay alive and who imagine that it will be no big deal if Virgin Atlantic ceases to take to the skies, please take the time to read this with an open mind to see if I can’t persuade you that you might be missing something.
Goodness knows how many brands there are in the world. There must be millions, but how many of them have reached the status of icons? There are Disney and Apple of course and a handful of others. In that handful is Virgin. I would argue that for some time now Virgin Atlantic has been the flag carrier for that brand, even though it was not the company that first brought it to our attention. Regardless of where the founder lives and regardless of who may own a share of it, it was a company born in the UK and is something that the British people should be proud of.
Virgin Atlantic was founded in 1984 just 2 years after Laker Airways was put out of business by multiple airlines including British Airways colluding to temporarily fix prices at a level where Laker could not continue to operate and threatening the airline’s suppliers that they would no longer do business with them if they participated in a rescue attempt. The airlines which were responsible for the demise of Laker Airways eventually had to pay close to $100 million in damages, but that came only after Laker had gone out of business.
Despite being warned against it, Richard Branson went up against this bunch and once again gave the British public an opportunity to cross the Atlantic at a reasonable price. I flew with them that first year as a passenger. I enjoyed the experience so much that I decided to apply to Virgin as cabin crew. I did not do so in the usual way, but drew a silly cartoon and sent it to Richard. It worked and he instructed the recruiters to interview me. That was the first but by no means the last time that I would owe Richard my thanks. On paper I was, I am convinced, the wrong person for the job. I had no qualifications and no experience in customer service. Still, the recruiters thought me worth the risk and 2 years later, I earned my wings and joined the greatest team that I have ever had the pleasure of working with. I spent the next 14 years zipping around the world with Virgin Atlantic and leaving often feels like the worst decision that I ever made.
So many companies have their vacuous slogans alluding to how customer focused they are, but I can tell you from experience that when it comes to Virgin it is in the DNA of the company. Richard ensured that the core group of people who were there from the start were zealots in their pursuits to deliver a first-rate service to its flying guests. They, in turn, recruited the best people that they could find and so on and so on.
Virgin has always striven to keep the price of its tickets as reasonable as possible but has not let that stop them from innovating. Upper Class was as good as first-class service but far less expensive, and the screens that your eyes are glued to on just about all long haul flights now, it was Virgin that started that. The big boys, such as BA have all had to up their game and lower their prices to not lose too much ground to Virgin. They didn’t like doing so and went on the attack with their dirty tricks campaign to once again try to eliminate their competition. Thankfully, this time the courts put a stop to their antics and forced BA to pay Richard and Virgin Atlantic damages. Where do you think that money went? Into Richards pocket? No, it went into the pockets of the Virgin Atlantic staff.
This is just one instance of Richards behaviour which demonstrates that he cares about his staff. Here are a few more that I have personally witnessed and had reported to me directly by affected staff members. Richard obviously flies with Virgin a great deal and when I was still flying, most of us would meet him many times over the years. The first meeting for most crew will usually be for the wings ceremony at the end of the initial training. When still living in the UK he tried to make it to all of them. Being the busy man that he is, he would occasionally miss one. I was disappointed that he missed mine, but by coincidence, I bumped into him in Gatwick Airport, the next day. I had the mother of all hangovers thanks to the wings ceremony and when I introduced myself to Richard he could tell that I was in a bad way. He took my suitcase and carried it to the train station for me.
How many of the worlds business elite are as approachable as he is? Many far lower-ranked managers in many organisations walk around as if they are the bee’s knees. Not Richard. When you are around him he has a manner that puts you at ease. He is as far from pretentious as can be. He shows, what I believe is, a genuine interest in the people that he is talking to. He wants to hear your thoughts and ideas and seems to enjoy chatting with his staff as with anyone else, perhaps even more so than with many other people. Being rich and famous, he no doubt is not short on invitations to stay, dine and party with other rich and famous people, but on his trips to the destinations that Virgin flies to, more often than not he will stay at the same hotel as the crew and go to dinner or out to a bar with them. When there was a function going on such as the opening of a new Megastore or some such thing, he would invite the crew to go along for the party.
For many years before the Virgin staff from all of the companies became so large that it was impractical, he would host giant multiday parties at his then house in Oxfordshire. All but the skeleton staff needed to keep the various businesses ticking over were invited to attend just one day, or if they wanted could pitch a tent on his land and stay for the whole thing. Richard and his family would be mingling the whole time and he even had his house open for anyone who cared to wander in. These were really great events, that he had no need to put on, but which were very much appreciated by his staff. Related to this, although I was never lucky enough to partake, there have been many Virgin Atlantic staff of all different ranks in the company that have been invited to holiday at his home in Necker. How many billionaires do you think are doing that kind of thing?
Another gesture that he could have easily avoided was sending each of his workers a Christmas card every year. I suspect that the sheer enormity of the task has put an end to this now, but while I was still with Virgin and when the staff was in the low thousands Richard would often come on a flight in the summer carrying a stack of cards that he would sit and sign, thus breaking the job down into smaller chunks. He could have so easily just have had his Christmas message to us printed but had sufficient emotional intelligence to know that we would appreciate the gesture.
On more personal matters I learned of many occasions when he phoned staff members at home upon learning of difficulties that they were going through, such as the sickness, or death of loved ones. I actually have personal experience of this, as he phoned me on one occasion to check on my welfare after hearing that I had had a particularly tough flight one time which resulted in a violent passenger having to be restrained and arrested.
Another incidence in which I was personally involved which I think shows Richard’s true character was when someone forgot to file a flight plan with the Russian air traffic control. A quick radio conversation between the aircraft and air traffic control could have sorted things out, but the powers that be in Moscow wanted to make a big thing of it. I was on the flight and instead of flying on to Hong Kong as we were supposed to, we were given orders to land in Moscow, with no explanation why. After many hours on the ground, surrounded by Russian soldiers, we were finally allowed to depart and head back to the UK. This incident cost Virgin and so ultimately Richard many 10s of thousands of pounds and caused a great deal of stress for hundreds of passengers and crew. Firing the person who had caused the whole problem would have been totally justified, but when Richard was told, he gave instructions that the person be given a second chance.
Similar to this, it will probably not come as a great shock to most that with several thousand young people being paid to fly around the world together there was the occasional party in the hotel. Without going into details that might incriminate some of my former colleagues there was an occasion or two when the behaviour of some of the crew ventured into the realm of being a bit over the top. On one such occasion Richard was, I believe, forced to jump on a plane and go and make a personal apology to the hotel manager, to smooth things over. Once again the guilty parties were given a second chance at Richard’s instruction.
A cynical person might view all of the above as evidence of Richard being a shrewd person who knows how to behave in order to trick his staff into believing that he cares about them. This is not the way that most of the people who have worked and still work for him see it. We who have spent time with him know that he is the real deal. He cares for his people and refers to them as his Virgin family and in my working life, I have not encountered a group of workers that comes as close as this to living up to the label.
We who have worked for Virgin Atlantic feel great sorrow when we see Richard being attacked as he is too frequently being, recently. He is not perfect, but he has given many of us the best times of our lives. He has inspired us within Virgin to develop and deliver a first-rate service to millions of customers. How many people outside of Virgin has he inspired too, either to start their own businesses or to be more entrepreneurial within the organisations that they work in? If there has been another British entrepreneur that has been a better ambassador for the UK, in my lifetime, I can’t think who it could be.
I will go further and suggest that he may well be, until very recently when the press turned on him, the worlds favourite entrepreneur although he is nowhere near the richest.
It appears to be open season on billionaires at the moment, which I can begin to understand as we find ourselves in a time when so many have financial worries. I have a different take than many though. Sure there are some billionaires that seem to do little to improve the world with their great wealth, but some like Richard have improved the world through their actions. Many people think that billionaires are driven by greed. Some may be, but many (including Richard) are I believe, driven by an intense desire to create and to make the world a better place, by either improving on something that already exists or by launching new innovative products and services. They are artists of a sort, but rather than using paint and canvases they use money and assemble amazing groups of people to create amazing organisations. Thank goodness such people exist, for we all get to benefit from the ways that they shake up the existing order.
For all this talk of Richard’s net worth, while he lives better than most of us (wouldn’t he be a little silly not to?), the bulk of his wealth is not buried in barrels like some drug baron or stashed in bank accounts. It is not, as far as I know, squandered on solid gold toilets and other equally vulgar displays of wealth, but is mostly invested in many different companies providing work for more than 70,000 people, I believe. If you add to this figure the businesses which rely on the custom of a Virgin company for there survival there will be hundreds of thousands of people earning their living as a result of Richard’s investments.
There are many who think that he should not have asked the Virgin Atlantic staff to take 2 months unpaid leave and should just dip into his own pocket to continue paying them. I can not see too deeply into his finances but suspect that this is a somewhat simplistic view. Richard does not have the luxury of thinking only of Virgin Atlantic. He has to consider the Virgin empire in its entirety. He has to keep all of the plates spinning, or at least has to try his hardest to do so. Other substantial parts of the empire are in serious trouble too, thanks to this damned virus. With hindsight, he could not have picked a worse time to start a cruise line or a hotel company and surely the health clubs are empty right now. That is just to mention 3 other parts of the empire. I doubt very much that he is able to act quite as easily as you imagine to merely shift money around to solve the problems of Virgin Atlantic. Even if he could, he would then jeopardise the survival of the healthier parts. Nevertheless, I feel sure that he is doing some pretty frantic financial shuffling at this moment. I know that Richard has announced that he would be putting 250 million dollars to use in helping Virgin companies through these tough times. You should be aware to that the great majority of the Virgin Atlantic staff saw the need for the airline to rapidly reduce expenses and willingly agreed to take the unpaid leave.
No doubt he has ruffled a few feathers with his vocal opposition to Brexit, but just because someone may have a differing political view from you does not necessarily make them a bad person. The two things that I think are Richard’s hardest nuts to crack, though, when it comes to winning back the goodwill of many of the British public are first of all the issue of him living in the Virgin Islands and paying no personal income tax to the British government. I suspect that many of you will if you really think about it understand this point, even if you remain a little jealous that you can’t do the same. His business success as a young man enabled him to buy the island. Over many years and many holidays there and after having the island gradually transformed into the paradise that it is now, he came to feel most at home there. What amazes me is that it took him so long to move there. He happened to be lucky that living there automatically exempted him from UK income tax. Being the astute businessman that he is wouldn’t it be a little insane for him to pay more tax than the law required of him? His UK businesses continued to pay all of the relevant taxes as did all of the UK resident employees. For sure this results in millions of pounds a year going to tax office.
Do not overlook the numerous ways that Richard and Virgin have raised huge amounts of money for many, many charities throughout the years either. There really have been too many cases to begin to list here.
The second hard nut is that of him supposedly suing the NHS. This is a matter that has been vastly oversimplified and sensationalised by the media. To explain it all here would double the length of this essay. For those of you who are interested to learn more a good place to start is by clicking this link. For those of you who have had enough, just know that you may not have heard the whole story.
I have personally struggled in writing this, as in normal circumstances I would be extremely reluctant to support bailouts as I believe them to penalise competing companies that have been doing a good job of managing themselves and so do not need bailing out. Much as I love Virgin Atlantic if I believed it to be up against the wall because of having been badly run I would be inclined to let it fail and let another better run business pick up the pieces. Please don’t forget that Virgin is not asking for a gift, just a loan on commercial terms. Normal routes to bank loans are not functioning quite, as usual, to put things mildly and the rapid sale of assets could only be achieved by resorting to selling them at fire-sale prices and not without risking jobs. You and I know though that these are not normal circumstances. Virgin Atlantic is where it is not because of bad management, but because nature has, metaphorically, whacked it in the side of the head with a sledgehammer. The airline (as do just about all of the rest of them) needs some help to get back up in the Sky. Give it a chance and it will make you proud that you did. The more than 10,000 people working for Virgin Atlantic will slog their hearts out to keep on improving their already great service and keeping BA and the rest of them on their toes and not giving them the chance to raise the prices of your flights and holidays in the near future. Even if I cannot move you to think well of Richard, think of them and don’t make them suffer for your dislike of one man.
If you have yet to fly Virgin, take it from me, You don´t know what you are missing. I hope that you will get the opportunity to find out.