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Mr. Richard Branson, Founder and Chairman, Virgin group of companies

India Infoline / 00:00 , Apr 11, 2005

Virgin Atlantic Airways has become Britain’s second largest airline serving the world's major cities, Since it was founded almost twenty years ago, Virgin Atlantic was developed as an offshoot of Richard Branson’s Virgin Group, which was better known at the time as a leading light in the world of pop and rock music. In early 1984, the then young and unorthodox chairman of Virgin was surprised when he was contacted by an Anglo-US lawyer called Randolph Fields with a proposal for an involvement in a new airline called British Atlantic. Fields originally planned to operate a 747 service to New York’s JFK airport in an all business configuration - an idea that was denied to him by British licensing authorities.

On 22 June 1984 Virgin’s inaugural flight to Newark took place, a flight filled with friends, celebrities and the media. From those early days the airline has gone from strength to strength. Now based at both London’s Gatwick and Heathrow airports, it operates longhaul services from Heathrow to New York (Newark and JFK), Los Angeles, San Francisco, Washington, Boston, Miami, Tokyo, Hong Kong, Johannesburg, Cape Town, Shanghai, Delhi, Lagos and latest Mumbai. Virgin also operates services from Gatwick to Orlando, Barbados, St Lucia, Antigua, Las Vegas, Grenada and Tobago. Virgin Atlantic also operates a service from Manchester to Orlando.

Richard Branson, Founder and Chairman of the Virgin group of companies, was born in 1950, and educated at Stowe School, where he established a national magazine called Student at the age of sixteen. He started a student advisory service centre aged 17 to help young people. In 1970 he founded Virgin as a mail order record company and shortly after opened a record shop in Oxford Street, London. During 1972, a recording studio was built in Oxfordshire where the first Virgin artist, Mike Oldfield, recorded "Tubular Bells" which was released in 1973. The first album of the newly created Virgin records went on to sell over 5 million copies. Over the years many household names, including Genesis, Phil Collins, Peter Gabriel, Simple Minds, The Human League, Culture Club, Janet Jackson and The Rolling Stones helped make Virgin one of the top six record companies in the world. The interests of Virgin Group had now expanded into international "Megastore" music retailing, book and software publishing film and video editing facilities, clubs, travel, hotels and cinemas through over 100 companies in 23 countries.

Since 1985, Richard has also been involved in a number of world record-breaking attempts. In 1986, his boat Virgin Atlantic Challenger II, rekindled the spirit of the Blue Riband by crossing the Atlantic Ocean in the fastest ever recorded time. This was followed a year later by the epic hot air balloon crossing in 'Virgin Atlantic Flyer’ which was not only the first to cross the Atlantic but was the largest ever flown. In January 1991, he crossed the Pacific Ocean from Japan to Arctic Canada, again breaking all existing records with speeds of up to 245 miles per hour.

Between 1995 and 1998 Richard Branson and Per Lindstrand and Steve Fossett made a number of attempts to circumnavigate the globe by balloon. In late 1998 they made a record breaking flight from Morocco to Hawaii but their dream was shattered by bad weather before a Swiss team successfully circumnavigated the globe early in 1999.

In the 1999 New Years Honours list Richard Branson received a knighthood for his services to entrepreneurship. Richard lives in London and Oxfordshire and is married to Joan with two children, Holly and Sam.

Anil Mascarenhas of India Infolineposed a few questions to Richard Branson. Read on for more on his plans for India revealed during a recent media meet in Mumbai.

There is a perception that flights to India are not very profitable. What is your view?
I think in the past, airlines operating flights into India should have made a lot of money. Anyone who says they didn’t make sufficient money earlier, through their flights to India. I would be really surprised. Airlines were earlier charging exorbitant prices. In the future, airlines may not be making lots of profits. That’s how it should be. You cannot have a false market where you make a lots of profit. As the number of flights increases, the flight charges do go down. Despite that, I reckon airlines would be making profits out of India.

Which route is most profitable for you?
I don't think I can share that information. Else, you will find all the other airlines making their way to those routes.

Your view on the aviation sector in India?
India is the second largest growing market in the world and it would be foolish for Virgin not to embrace India. The airline business will be the bridgehead to other businesses.

If the skies were freed up, there would probably be as many flights coming to India as there are at present to the US ever year. It’s a vast market that is vastly underserved. I started lobbying around 10 years ago to start flights to India. Thanks to the change in government, I guess, I am finally able to start much more services.

The elimination of barriers on air travel between Britain and India will help increase the number of flights and lower prices. Air fares will fall. The best companies will survive and offer the best services. Airlines like Air India, Jet and Sahara should be allowed to fly anywhere in the U.K. and British Airways and Virgin Atlantic should be allowed to fly anywhere in India.

You've asked for more flights to Delhi?
I urge the Indian and British governments for the success of the last bilateral talks. We hope the talks produce sufficient new frequencies so that we can fulfill our ambition of flying triple daily services to India. We are looking forward to daily services to Mumbai and seven more to other cities. Bangalore, Hyderabad, Ahmedabad and Amritsar are on our wish list. A lot more direct services would make sense.

You have interests in other sectors. What else are you bringing to India?
We have interest in financial services, health club and music sectors. Virgin Group is looking at India's mobile phone sector. It is a possibility we are seriously considering. Generally, we use our airline as a bridgehead into a new country. I'm sure we will start rolling our other businesses in India. We may set up a chain of health clubs, as we did in South Africa and the UK.

Are you looking at investing in any domestic airlines in India?
If I am permitted, I would like to invest in the domestic airline in India. I am sorry that I cant comment on specifics. The potential of the domestic airlines industry is huge and it requires investment. The rules governing investment in domestic airlines are a bit murky.

The low-cost carriers are now competing with trains. Competitive pricing and the quality of services would be the deciding factors in the industry.

Your plans for space tourism business?
We've always dreamt of developing a space tourism business and Paul Allen's vision, combined with Burt Rutan's technological brilliance, have brought that dream a step closer to reality. The deal with Mojave Aerospace Ventures is just the start of what we believe will be a new era in the history of mankind, one day making the affordable exploration of space by human beings a real possibility.

We hope to build hotels in the moon and launch spaceships as well. In two years Virgin Galatic hopes to begin operations.