On April 4 it was announced that budget airline Alaska Air Group was buying out the uber-cool Virgin America fleet. The West Coast carrier filled a niche in consumer air travel with its black leather seats, hip purple mood lighting, and in-flight entertainment systems. Virgin Group co-founder, Sir Richard Branson, stopped by Deadline’s Tribeca Film Festival studio on a promo tour for the documentary he stars in, Don’t Look Down, and gave us the lowdown on the merger, as well as an update on his burgeoning spaceflight company, Virgin Galactic. In addition, he dishes on how an April Fools’ joke he pulled on the music industry was taken seriously by Apple honcho Steve Jobs and led to the demise of his Virgin Megastores.
“The sale of Virgin America is one of the most disappointing moments of my life. For years we fought to create a decent airline in America, but the American authorities in their wisdom said because I have an English accent and that I’m born in England and not America, that I had to give up my voting rights (in the company), so I could have 20% voting shares,” explains Branson. Virgin America is a U.S. airline and as such by law, no more than 25% of a U.S. airline may be owned by foreign interests and must be under the control of U.S. citizens.
Branson says he’s going to do what he can to protect Virgin America: “I’m going to see Alaska Airlines in a couple weeks’ time, I’m hoping that we’ll make sure that they keep the Virgin America brand in a way that people want to see it being kept, that they look at the staff and realize what they bought.”
Daniel Gordon’s documentary Don’t Look Down which played at Tribeca on Tuesday centers on Branson’s daredevil balloon flights across the Atlantic and the Pacific, which were PR stunts for Virgin Airlines. In regards to the Atlantic trip, Branson says, “Six tried before us. Five had died,” and what “could go wrong, went wrong on that flight.”
“We shouldn’t be here to tell the tale, but it tells for a gripping film,” says Branson. Submarine Entertainment is handling both U.S. and foreign sales for Don’t Look Down.