It can be completely frustrating to have a flight delayed or canceled.
For most travelers, there isn’t much you can do beyond accepting your fate or struggling to find an alternative flight. But Richard Branson isn’t ‘most travelers’ and back in 1984, when the billionaire entrepreneur was faced with this same problem while trying to get from Puerto Rico to the Virgin Islands, he took matters into his own hands. His flight was canceled but Richard decided he wouldn’t let that get in the way of his travels.
“I hired a plane, borrowed a blackboard and as a joke, I wrote ‘Virgin Airlines’ on the top of the blackboard, ‘$39 one way to BVI,'” Richard said in a video by HP Matter. “I went out to round up all the passengers who had been bumped and I filled up my first plane.”
Shortly after that original voyage, Richard decided that he was done paying to fly on airlines that didn’t put their customers first. He went out and bought some 747s from Boeing and Virgin Atlantic was officially born.
It seems like it was always Richard’s destiny to end up in the airline industry. Although he got his start in entertainment, his mother was a stewardess in the 1940s and his uncle survived his plane being shot down in World War II.
Over the last 33 years, Virgin Atlantic has risen to become the second largest airline carrier in the United Kingdom, a title that Richard has worked hard to earn.
“But it hasn’t always been easy and during those 33 years we’ve had to first withstand British Airways’ ‘Dirty Tricks’ campaign, which tried to put us out of business and where we won the largest libel settlement in British history,” Richard wrote to his employees in an open letter.
In those early days, Virgin only had four planes, but British Airways became intensely focused on taking business away from the newest airline in the neighborhood.
“They had a team of people illegally accessing our computer information and ringing up our passengers and pretending that they were from Virgin, telling them that flights were canceled and switching them onto BA,” said Richard in an episode of NPR’s “How I Built This” podcast.
After taking British Airways to court and winning, Virgin Atlantic was awarded $945,000 in damages. What Richard did with this settlement is practically unheard of.
Almost immediately, Richard turned around and invested the settlement straight into his employees, distributing the money equally to everyone who was a current employee at Virgin Atlantic.
Because the bonus was given at Christmas time, past and current employees still remember their payout as the “BA Christmas Bonus.” Considering that nowadays, most CEOs make anywhere from 70 to 300 times that of the average employee salary, this was truly incredible for the billionaire founder.
This type of unexpected generosity is a quality that more company executives — and everyone, for that matter — should strive for. Richard’s heart for his employees and customers is inspiring.
“The fundamental driver of our success at Virgin has, and will always be, our people working together,” Richard wrote in a blog on the Virgin website. “To be successful in business, and in life, you need to connect and collaborate.”
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