Richard Branson celebrates Virgin Atlantic’s entry to Seattle market, tears into Alaska Air

Virgin Atlantic Cabin Crew
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Virgin Atlantic founder Richard Branson continues flying after stepping off a Boeing 787-9 Dreamliner on Monday afternoon after a flight from London to celebrate Virgin Atlantic’s new London-Seattle route. (Steve Ringman/The Seattle Times)

A Boeing 787-9 Dreamliner touched down Monday afternoon at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport, bringing entrepreneur Richard Branson to town for a celebration of Virgin Atlantic’s entrance into the Seattle market.

But he also used the visit to tear into Alaska Air Group, which announced last week it would retire the Virgin America brand in the next two years, after buying the airline — Virgin Atlantic’s U.S. sister — last year for $4 billion.

Monday’s Virgin Atlantic flight, the third since the airline launched its Seattle-London route on Sunday, featured quite a bit of fanfare. British musical artist Raye performed onboard for passengers, who included Virgin Atlantic CEO Craig Kreeger in addition to founder Branson.

The route replaces Virgin partner Delta’s London-Seattle flight and will add capacity for 40,000 additional seats each year, Virgin Atlantic said. That brings total capacity on the route to 150,000 passengers annually.

The daily route was announced this past spring, nearly a year before its launch. The new Virgin Atlantic route will arrive in Seattle at 3 p.m. each day and take off for London at 5:50 p.m.

Virgin America’s presence in Seattle made it easier for Virgin Atlantic to launch the route, Kreeger said.

“Our experience from afar with our sister company and the role they’ve played in Seattle has elevated the Virgin brand for us in this city, more so than a typical startup route would ordinarily be,” he said. “The brand is already known here.”

Seattle-based Alaska Airlines is Delta’s main competitor in the Seattle market.

At a Monday news conference, Branson called Alaska’s decision to retire the Virgin America brand that he founded “baffling.”

“When I sat down with Alaska, I genuinely believed they would treasure the brand, treasure the people, treasure the product,” he said. “… And that the last thing they would do would be to rip the heart out of it, which seems like what they are going to do.”

Alaska Air portrayed its decision differently when it was announced last week, saying it needed to operate under one name for consistency and efficiency, and that it “will adopt many of the brand elements that Virgin America enthusiasts love about their favorite airline.”

Branson opposed the acquisition last year, but he was only a minority shareholder so could not stop the sale. “I just wonder what it was that Alaska bought,” he said Monday. “Why did they bother?”

Branson said he had been prepared to answer questions about Alaska’s decision a different way at Monday’s news conference. “I thought I’d be polite, but I decided not to be,” Branson said, laughing.

The entrepreneur said that Alaska still has to pay to license the Virgin America brand through 2040, whether they use it or not.

Branson gave an example of how Virgin Atlantic differs from other airlines. He held up a small salt shaker and pepper shaker — items he had “stolen” from Monday’s flight. The small silver shakers have been amenities on the airline for more than 30 years, and people love to steal them.

At one point, Branson found out that the stolen salt and pepper shakers were costing Virgin $2.5 million a year. Instead of eliminating the items, they stamped “Pinched from Virgin Atlantic” on the bottom.

“They’ve become some of our best advertising,” he said.

While in Seattle, Branson will also speak on a panel with local entrepreneurs Tuesday as part of Virgin Atlantic’s “Business Is an Adventure” private event series.

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