Richard Branson Says Goodbye to Virgin America

David Ryder / Bloomberg / Getty Images

Sir Richard Branson and loyal Virgin America frequent fliers are bidding a fond farewell to the airline known best for its pink-and-purple mood lighting and forward-thinking flair.

On Thursday, Branson published a letter to the public on the Virgin website addressing the demise of the airline that he founded in 2004. According to the mogul himself, “many tears were shed” upon hearing the news that after purchasing Virgin America for $2.6 billion in 2016, Alaska Airlines plans to retire the brand in 2019.

The choice to retire the Virgin America brand likely stems from a cost-efficiency standpoint for Alaska Airlines. Since the acquisition, Alaska Airlines has been paying royalties to the Virgin brand. Retiring the brand will resolve any financial obligation that Alaska has to Branson and the rest of his mega-brand. In the meantime, Branson has the choice to restore the brand and resell it to another airline. But until that happens, the only white and red planes taking to the sky with the free in-flight entertainment and groovy ambiance that Virgin customers have grown to love will be Virgin Atlantic and Virgin Australia flights.

Throughout his address to bid the brand farewell, Branson takes the opportunity to recall the origins of the brand when all flights were flown on leased planes, the memories of the first in-air wedding that took place on a Virgin America flight, Oprah’s in-flight Skype session, and plenty of slight pokes to the “blah airlines” of the world.

Branson’s public letter of love and loss, which he titled “Dear Virgin America,” can be read in full here:

With a lot of things in life, there is a point where we have to let go and appreciate the fact that we had this ride at all. Many years ago, I shed tears over selling my beloved Virgin Records for $1 billion, which we needed to fight off British Airways’ Dirty Tricks campaign to try to put Virgin Atlantic out of business. Many tears are shed today, this time over Alaska Airlines’ decision to buy and now retire Virgin America.

It has a very different business model and sadly, it could not find a way to maintain its own brand and that of Virgin America.

When a company goes public, decisions are made that benefit the shareholders. In the best of times, they also benefit consumers. It remains to be seen what will happen now – for travellers – with fewer airlines in the US than ever. Being different and on a mission to truly reinvent an experience for the customer is increasingly rare in this business.

Remember that time from 2004 to 2007 when we leased planes that were sitting on the runway while we waited for the US government to give us a license so that we could make flying good again? Remember the naysayers who said you could not create an experience-driven airline in the US and survive? Remember launch day – August 8th, 2007 – when even an epic tornado didn’t stop our brilliant team getting our first flight an on-time departure?

Remember that time in 2014 when Dallas residents signed a petition to make sure city council members did the right thing and gave us two gates at Dallas Love Field? And the party we threw to thank Dallas for letting us fly? The legacy airlines kept trying to stop us flying. But we won over people in Newark, Chicago and Boston in similar fashion. We grew to more than 25 cities, swept every single major consumer travel award and became profitable. Even if the industry ‘experts’ did not, you and your guests always believed that an airline can stay in business by delivering a better flying experience.

We went through a lot together. And you were worth every minute, every penny (there were many!), every battle. We earned every loyal guest and fan. Every market was hard-won. The launch parties, the networking, the productivity on flights, the live concerts at 35,000 feet, the marriage proposals, the first in-flight wedding, the Oprah Skype to the plane! And who could forget that time in 2008 when I nearly ripped my arse jumping off the side of The Palms in Vegas?

It was a long and hard journey but in the end you are the best consumer airline in America. You invented concepts like ‘moodlighting’ and ‘on-demand food,’ you reinvented cabin amenities from seat-to-seat chat to Netflix in the sky. You chose warm and soothing pink to purple moodlighting that transitions based on outside light. You proved it is possible to run a business with a strategy that does not rely on low fares and a dominant position alone: you attracted premium flyers with a fun and beautiful guest experience. You created the world’s most loved safety video. You proved that it is possible to create a business with a terrific culture and a brand that people love.

You let Teammates think differently, and invested a lot of time and money into lifting your Teammates up with extraordinary training. You also gave back at every turn, even when you weren’t yet profitable. Investing in and operating one of the youngest and most fuel and carbon efficient fleets in the US. Starting mentoring conversations among seasoned and aspiring entrepreneurs. Putting the spotlight on adopting animals that need homes on the adorable annual Chihuahua airlift day.

One of my favourite moments was joining KIPP students on a flight to watch Virgin Galactic’s WhiteKnightTwo fly alongside us; the flight inspired a new generation of engineers and pilots and ensured that an exciting future of transportation belonged to everyone. Throughout it all, you aimed to make flying good again – and you did.

To each of your brilliant Teammates, I know that you will continue to do great things, whether you stay on with Alaska or pursue a different path. Build a business that puts its people first. Work with partners who share your same progressive and inclusive values. Focus on delivering a great customer experience, and success will come. Make business a force for good. Stay positive; attitude is everything.

To our wonderful guests, I speak for everyone at Virgin America when I say we are eternally thankful. For believing in the little airline that could. For giving up your miles on “Blah airlines” – so you could fly us for the experience. For supporting us in every tussle we got in with the big guys. For believing that all airlines don’t have to be the same – and that experience matters.

You would not believe the number of people who tell me how much they love flying Virgin America. Keep expecting – and demanding – more from your airlines! If you miss flying Virgin America, you still have your beautiful sisters; Virgin Atlantic is starting service from London to Seattle next week, and Virgin Australia is starting direct service from Melbourne to Hong Kong the week after that. Virgin flies on.

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