Virgin America doesn’t do anything halfway when it comes to promoting new service and amenities, and Monday’s launch of three daily flights between Los Angeles and Las Vegas was no exception. The airline, which included Las Vegas as one of its launch cities with flights to and from San Francisco when Virgin America began flying in 2007, turned McCarran International Airport’s Gate D26 into a day club and welcomed its largest shareholder, Virgin Group founder Sir Richard Branson, to jump-start the entry into the city’s most competitive market.
Virgin America joins five other airlines already offering 30 daily flights, including market leader Southwest Airlines. Virgin hopes to separate itself from competitors with comfortable, mood-lit Airbus A320 jets, a high-tech entertainment system at every seat, and customer service that has topped public surveys and won national and international awards.
Branson and Virgin America CEO David Cush hosted a red-carpet event at the airport, serving up “Virginitinis” developed by Cosmopolitan mixologist Christopher Hopkins, and they brought in a DJ along with actresses Krysten Ritter, Jaime Pressly and Adrienne Maloof and musician Joe Jonas on the inaugural flight from Los Angeles.
Branson is no stranger to Las Vegas, making public appearances on behalf of Virgin America and promoting his foundation. He’s known worldwide as an adventurer, entrepreneur and philanthropist, and on Monday, he took six questions from the Sun:
What have you got planned on this Las Vegas trip?
I’ve got a speech later today. I do 20 speeches a year to raise money for our foundation. We put 100 percent of the money made from speeches to charity. And, of course, I’m here for Virgin America and the party tonight at the Chandelier at the Cosmopolitan. I’m Virgin America’s biggest shareholder and it’s got our brand on it. I love the airline and the people who run it. It’s been the best airline in America for six years in a row. They all work enormously hard, so the least I can do is help put new routes on the map when they launch them. After Las Vegas, I’m going on to the Mojave Desert to be there for our first flight on our spaceship.
That’s your Virgin Galactic project. What’s ahead for that?
We’re hoping to break the sound barrier. That’s planned Monday. It will be a historic day. This is going to be Virgin Galactic’s year. We’ll break the sound barrier Monday and from there, we build up through the rest of the year, finally going into space near the end of the year. I’ll be on the first official flight, which we look to have in the first quarter of next year. We’re doing a number of test flights into space first.
While you’re here, you’re not planning on jumping off any buildings like you did when you were here in 2007?
I’m quite glad I’m not, actually. That kind of backfired on me last time. We were just calling attention to our flights to and from San Francisco and I was rappelling off one of the towers at the Palms. I normally do something fun, but that was one of those stunts that went wrong. The wind blew me into the side of the building on the way down. Traveling at 100 mph, hitting the side of the building — not a good idea. Fortunately, it was my bum that hit the side of the building. My bum was very bloodied and my ego was slightly bloodied. We still had a great party that night. I just couldn’t sit down.
Virgin is launching its Los Angeles flights at a time when the Federal Aviation Administration air traffic controllers are being furloughed and flights to and from Southern California are being delayed. What are your thoughts on that?
It hasn’t really affected us yet, and we don’t know if it will. From an outsider, it just seems so sad that you have this rather strange system in America where you don’t elect somebody to manage your country. If I’m running a company like Virgin, I run it to succeed. Running a country with two heads trying to run it doesn’t make sense. Personally, I think the way your Founding Fathers set up the way to run America is not sound. In Britain, you have one party that runs the country and if you don’t like it, you kick them out at the end of five years. Trying to balance everything is no way to run a country.
So what’s next for you?
We’ve got a lot on our plates. On the adventure side, we’ve got our plan to explore the bottom of the deepest places in the ocean and we’re obviously looking to go to space. So we’re building submarines to go down and spaceships to go up. I plan to do both myself because I love these adventures. Most of my time, though, is spent on creating organizations to tackle problems. We have an organization called the Elders that goes to different regions to tackle conflicts. We’ve got the Carbon War Room to try to get on top of the problems of global warming and we’ve got the Center for Disease Control in Africa to try to tackle diseases. We also have the Oceanic Elders to look after our oceans and create more marine parks to protect species in the ocean, prevent overfishing and so on. So we’re very busy.
Whenever you go on some of these adventures, do you ever get nervous?
I (soil) my pants nearly on many occasions. When things go horribly wrong, you wonder why on earth you did it. So I’m being a bit more careful. I’m not jumping off of any buildings in Vegas anymore.