The one single thing I remember most about Aug. 8, 2007, was Richard Branson sprinting down a JFK Airport terminal to retrieve a belt he forgot at the security checkpoint.
It was a bit surreal to see the British billionaire chasing down his own item, just like many of us have probably done at least once at while traveling. He assured his handlers that he’d be fine fetching it himself and that he’d be right back. As promised, he returned just moments later and quickly took the microphone to kick off a press conference that was awaiting his arrival.
That day, of course, was memorable for reasons other than seeing the Sir Richard run through a New York airport. It also was the day that Virgin America made its first flight.
Now, just a decade and a few days later, the carrier’s 10th anniversary came and went last week with little fanfare.
At the time of the launch, Branson – who spurred the airline’s creation – pledged that his plucky upstart would make flying in America enjoyable again.
Indeed, Virgin America has been a hit with fliers. The carrier has won numerous customer-service awards and enjoys a cult-like following in its home state of California, where it has hubs in San Francisco and Los Angeles.
Mirroring the ethos of Branson’s broader Virgin brand, Virgin America brought mood lighting, tech-friendly entertainment and other “hip” features into the mainstream of the U.S. airline industry at a time when most carriers were struggling to survive. However, Virgin was never able to convert its likability into consistent profits.
Still, Virgin America’s run has been remarkable, one the most formidable large start-up operations since JetBlue began flying in 2000. At its launch in 2007, Virgin America was touted as one of the most well-funded airline start-ups ever in the United States.
Normally, the 10th anniversary for a carrier with the history of Virgin America would be feted with great fanfare. Virgin America’s passed last week with little notice.
That’s likely because Virgin America now belongs to Alaska Airlines, acquired in a deal that closed in December 2016. Now, Alaska is in the process of folding Virgin America’s operations into its own. Soon – likely by 2019 – the Virgin America brand is expected to disappear altogether.
Given that backdrop, it’s perhaps little surprise that Alaska Airlines did not roll out a splashy, high-profile media blitz to celebrate a popular brand it plans to do away with.
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Nonetheless, Virgin America will be remembered for its place among U.S. airlines.
Virgin America loyalists are already mourning the eventual loss of the brand.
For me, Virgin America’s anniversary stirs memories of its launch.
I had been USA TODAY’s aviation reporter and blogger for about five years when Virgin America launched.
Covering the airline’s inaugural flight on Aug. 8, 2007, was one of the first assignments I traveled to cover, and had the feel of a major media event. TV cameras were rolling and media from across the country had assembled to cover the launch, hyped to great success by Branson and his Virgin PR machine.
A highlight for me was my lengthy interview with Branson – in the first-class cabin during the inaugural flight – thought that still doesn’t quite stand out in my mind quite like the image of Branson chasing down his lost belongings.
For Gareth Edmondson-Jones, Virgin America’s corporate communications director during the carrier’s start-up phase, the most enduring memory was the apocalyptic round of weather that threatened to turn the airline’s maiden flight into its first-ever cancellation.
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Edmondson-Jones recalls that day, remembering the “lashing rains” that began overnight and intensified closer to the flight’s scheduled departure time.
“The winds were so strong that the satellite trucks for NBC's Today and ABC's Good Morning America couldn't operate,” he continued, calling the scenario every “public relations person’s nightmare.”
“Luckily we had pre-taped interviews with GMA,” he remembered – saving Virgin America’s spot on at least one of the nation’s widely watched and influential morning shows.
Still, Virgin America’s launch wasn’t out of the woods.
The carrier’s inaugural plane was christened “Air Colbert,” for Stephen Colbert, who at the time had become a popular talk-show entertainer for his then-new show “The Colbert Report.” Colbert was to give the plane a ceremonial christening, but it was getting dangerously close to show time and Colbert was still stuck in transit.
Even Fred Reid – then Virgin America’s CEO – nearly missed the event -- and the flight -- because of the weather, Edmondson-Jones recalls.
“By around 7 a.m., the roads to the airport were impassable and the only way to make the flight was via the AirTrain,” he says. “Stephen Colbert was driving in from New Jersey, but after 4 or 5 hours in snarled traffic, had to turn back. Richard and Fred had to christen the aircraft without him as the sun finally came out, and we boarded the flight bound for San Francisco.”
The flight took a delay, but it departed and arrived in San Francisco at the same time as Virgin America’s second-ever flight – a departure from Los Angeles.
“Both flights approached, side by side, and landed simultaneously on the airport's parallel runways,” Edmondson-Jones says, calling that “a first for an airline launch.”
“Virgin America was born! It was an amazing day and a tribute to many, many people's hard work.”