Nevertheless, advertising mogul Sir Martin Sorrell has fond memories of Virgin Atlantic’s early years. “The cabin service, the atmosphere, the attention to audio and video, the experience of the Club House. It was very much more of an experience than just buying a plane ticket. And it wasn’t purely about cost, it was about providing … travel in a different way with a different atmosphere.”
He adds: “I think he just, he understood what consumers wanted. They wanted a more enjoyable, more inclusive experience.”
Branson would later claim Virgin Atlantic “transformed” airline travel: “Try to remember what travel was like … you would sit on a British Airways plane – or a TWA or a Pan Am plane – and you would get dreadful food, you would have to deal with staff who never smiled, you had no entertainment, you had uncomfortable seats … you were treated like cattle, and it was thoroughly unpleasant.”
Throughout the rest of the Eighties, Branson insisted Virgin Atlantic was not a threat to BA. “We think the market is there for both of us.”
But his increasingly adversarial advertising campaigns suggested otherwise. BA boss Lord King was left fuming when Virgin began flying from Heathrow. Branson dressed up like a pirate, draped a flag over a model of one of BA’s prized Concorde aircraft and declared Britain’s busiest airport “Virgin Territory”.
Frosty relations with BA, which had been privatised in 1987, turned toxic in the Nineties. Branson extracted more than £600,000 in damages and a public apology from his rival following its so-called “Dirty Tricks” campaign.
Among the allegations levelled against BA were attempts to access confidential information held on computers about Virgin Atlantic flights, efforts by BA employees to impersonate Virgin Atlantic counterparts to steal customers, and claims that BA was planting misleading information about Virgin Atlantic in the media.
Branson demanded answers. After ignoring a series of allegations, BA accused the Virgin founder of making up the claims as part of a publicity stunt. Branson sued for libel and Lord King counter-sued over his original allegations.
After keeping Fleet Street in copy for more than a year, BA backed down in January 1993, apologising “unreservedly” and agreeing to also foot the bill for £3m in legal fees.
While the High Court action had been brought to an end, the bitter rivalry continued. Branson hung a blimp over the London Eye emblazoned with “BA can’t get it up!” after technical issues left the BA-sponsored attraction on the ground. “BA don’t give a Shiatsu” was Branson’s “finest” advertising campaign, the businessman later said.