Richard Branson doesn’t do anything by halves.
So when the Brit billionaire decided that Virgin Atlantic would buy and fly the Airbus A380, his plans were to bring back the glory days of air travel – the days when flying was something special, an experience in itself – but with a modern and very on-brand Virgin touch.
Virgin Atlantic’s order for as many as 12 A380s would have seen the double-decker jets outfitted with
- a gym where travellers could pedal away the pounds as they crossed the Atlantic
- a mini-casino area with blackjack tables and a roulette wheel (a different way to lose a different sort of pounds)
- a beauty parlour for hair styling, nail treatments, facials and other forms of pampering above the clouds
- 35 “private double beds” created by 70 adjoining business class suites
“Since you have gaming and you have private double beds maybe there are two ways of getting lucky on a Virgin plane,” Branson remarked at the official launch and unveiling of the A380 in Toulouse, France on January 2005.
“Our reputation has been built on innovation, and the A380 will give us the opportunity to create a new flying experience for our passengers.”
Unlike most other airlines, Virgin wasn’t planning to go all-out with a luxurious first class cabin – its priciest tickets would still be for ‘Upper Class’ business class suites, where high flyers could soak up the A380’s many diversions as they crossed the Atlantic between London and the USA.
But Branson didn’t forget about economy, noting that the gym and gambling area would also be available to economy passengers.
“I believe big is beautiful,” he said at a joint press conference with Airbus and engine-market Rolls-Royce. “It is the only way to drive down the cost of air travel for economy class customers.”
In addition, the scarcity of take-off and landing slots at the world’s main airports would drive the need for larger aircraft.
Branson was bullish on the superjumbo, saying the "A380 is the way of the future just as Boeing thought the 747 was the way of future.”
His enthusiasm was perhaps also fuelled by the fact that rival British Airways was not among the A380’s launch customers – his arch-nemesis didn’t place their order until 2007 – which also allowed him to trumpet Virgin Atlantic as the ‘first UK flag-carrier’ with the superjumbo.
An even bigger A380
Virgin Atlantic’s first A380 was due to arrive in 2008, but by 2007, Branson was leaning towards an even larger version of the jet – a stretched model which Airbus dubbed the A380-900, in comparison to the original A380-800
“Ideally, we’d like Airbus to stretch them, because for the A380 to be really competitive it needs to be even bigger than it currently is,” Branson noted at the time, suggesting he’d prefer to wait until the super-superjumbo arrived around 2015, based on Airbus’ estimates for the since-scrapped variant.
But the only A380s delivered in Virgin Atlantic livery were promotional scale models by the AIrbus sales team to Branson and Virgin’s London headquarters.
In 2013 Virgin’s then-CEO Craig Kreeger confirmed the airline had “deferred them yet again” and pegged a new delivery date in 2018, while the airline turned its attention to new fuel-efficient aircraft like the Boeing 787 Dreamliner and later the Airbus A350.
"It’s hard but not impossible to see a world where we want to take the (A380),” Kreeger admitted. “It’s not a clear choice.”
However, the simultaneous rise in fuel costs and red ink on Virgin’s ledgers eventually made that choice.
“We just can’t find enough markets that made sense for an aircraft that big, and it didn’t make sense to take just one or two because of fleet complexity,” Kreeger reflected – and in March 2018, the ‘Flying Lady’ A380s were officially removed from Airbus’ order book.