Dressed in full cowboy gear, complete with a Virgin America belt buckle, British business mogul Sir Richard Branson greeted representatives of what looked to be every media outlet within a hundred miles -- and anyone else who could get their lunch hour off -- at Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport 'round noontime today. It was quite the spectacular-spectacular out on the tarmac, a celebration of the maiden voyage of Virgin America's DFW service to California, coupled with promises of East Coast flights sooner than later.
The specialty cocktails -- conspicuously made with Veev acai liquor, in keeping with Branson's oft-professed passion for sustainability -- began flowing an hour earlier as airport VIPs gathered to schmooze and take photos with the cowboys and horses that were corralled for the event. Wouldn't be a big Texas welcome without big Texas stereotypes.
Branson was already on the ground to greet the virginal Virgin America plane that landed around 12:20 p.m., carrying some lucky media types as well as Virgin America chairman and former American Airlines veep David Cush (an SMU grad) and his David Cassidy-esque hairdo. Swamped by photographers for several minutes and mugging with cowgirl-attired flight attendants for the cameras, Branson rounded up our own Mayor Tom Leppert and the other VI'est of the VIP's and headed down the red carpet to the podium for some vaguely smug, very public self-congratulating.
"We are so excited about this new service that connects two great places, California and Texas," Leppert told the crowd. As more people and businesses move from the Golden State to the Lone Star State, Leppert wondered aloud, "Can you think of a better way of getting here?" He called the North Texas economy "strong and vibrant," adding that "it's that way because we understand the importance of business." He told the Virgin crew: "You're Texans now!" And then somebody yee-hawed.
Before Branson spoke, he tore up his prepared notes (that outlaw!) and took off his cowboy hat, the better to let his flowing blond locks soak up the cool Texas breeze (there's quite the photo on the other side). As a few VIP bovines milled around just a few feet to his left, Branson told the crowd, "Virgin America was borne out of traveling on a lot of other people's airlines over the years, being treated a little bit like those cattle over there."
Looking forward to tonight's launch party at the Winspear Opera House, which will feature an appearance by Willie Nelson, Branson said that "like Willie, we like to fly high. We're going to have a smokin' party tonight."
After a short hour and a half wait -- at the airport, really, what else is new? -- I got a few minutes almost alone with Sir Richard inside the Virgin plane, which is decked out with mood lighting, leather and in-seat screens that allow flyers to choose music playlists, watch films and order drinks and food with a credit card swipe. I asked him about his clothes, his business and, fingers crossed, Virgin Time Travel.
"Step into my boudoir," Branson joked as I bumped my head on the first-class ceiling. I got the important questions out of the way first: Where'd that Virgin America belt buckle come from? A "lavatory" (adorable!), as he was being rushed to get dressed for the arrival of the flight. Alrighty then. Moving on: What of the iPad magazine, Project?
"It could be the start of a publishing empire for Virgin, or we may fall flat on our face, we'll see," he told me. One guesses that when one is approximately richer than God, one isn't bothered much if one's much-publicized journalistic endeavor fails miserably.
Considering Branson's empire stretches over hundreds of different companies and endeavors, I've long figured it was only a matter of time before Sir Richard turned his attention from space (see Virgin Galactic) to time travel. So how's that going? Branson took the bait and played along beautifully.
"We're working on a machine that is nearly completed," Branson told me, but "we're having problems with trying to keep the brain at my current age but the body at 19." When I pointed out that he may actually have already invented Virgin Time Travel in the future, he agreed. "It's quite possible that it has already happened."
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We then moved on to the issues at hand -- specifically, his brash, lookie-at-my-toys party on American Airlines' home field. Did he think AA is intimidated by Virgin's launch at DFW?
"We're flattered that they've been able to reduce their fares by 20 percent on L.A. and San Francisco," he told me, adding that "we've proven the benefits of competition." Regardless of how low fares go, however, "the one thing they can't match us on is style for our quality of product."
Branson said that Virgin America out of DFW plans to expand, with 50 new planes on the way, to the East Coast, Canada and Mexico.
Then, I bumped my head again and de-planed.