In the clearest sign yet of the changing aviation culture, Virgin Atlantic owner Sir Richard Branson said he would “almost certainly not turn girls upside down again,” signaling the end of the airline’s long-running flight promotion program.
Branson, who turned 72 in July, said he was still physically able to ‘pick up women’ – traditionally along the wing of a landed Virgin jumbo jet – but that ‘times have moved on’.
In Tampa, Florida, to promote the first direct service from Heathrow, the entrepreneur crossed the bay alone on a jet ski, telling onlookers that he once had someone behind him for the ride.
The razzmatazz around Branson’s appearance at Tampa International Airport on Thursday, standing on the steps of the Virgin Atlantic plane’s arrival and in a Tampa Bay Buccaneers football jersey, remained low-key by compared to the sexual apparitions of the past.
In 2005, in one of his most tabloid-rated promotional stunts, Branson carried and flipped an underdressed Pamela Anderson onto the wing of a Virgin jumbo at JFK Airport in New York City.
Others who donned regulation red attire and high heels to strike acrobatic poses with Branson at airports included British supermodel Kate Moss, who the billionaire waved at Heathrow in 2009. Another famous “wing walk saw Branson, then 59, carry Burlesque star Dita Von Teese through a jumbo Virgin in Las Vegas in 2010.
He said such feats are now a thing of the past. “There is no doubt that in the early days of Virgin, the company was very different. I doubt you’ll see me upsetting girls or seducing ladies today, whereas 38 years ago, if I didn’t do this, I wouldn’t have a place in a newspaper.
Branson’s last alleged public reversal of a female model, wearing a bikini and Russian hat, was in 2012 to promote planned flights to Moscow. In 2014, he was already raising his own kilt in Edinburgh when he launched an ill-fated Virgin airline subsidiary, Little Red.
He said: “You just adapt over time. And I could soon reach an age where I could put out a record.
Branson stressed that he was still in good physical shape, having climbed Mount Kenya, adding: “I can still upset the girls. But times have changed. »
The airline has made a series of policy changes in recent years, including removing requirements for female cabin crew to wear makeup, allowing crew to have visible tattoos and announcing in September that people could wear any Virgin uniform they wanted, regardless of gender. .
A Virgin Atlantic spokesperson said at least two non-binary staff on its planes are now choosing to wear the burgundy pantsuit instead of the traditional red skirt and jacket. According to the airline, job applications have skyrocketed since campaigns promoting its inclusive workplace.
The Varga girl pin-ups painted on planes when Branson founded the airline in 1984 have also been gradually replaced by various fully clothed figureheads since 2019 – including Billie Holliday on the new Airbus A330neo plane en route to Tampa.
Branson said he still sees the airline as a ‘girl’, adding: ‘It’s becoming a wonderful, diverse and happy company. People can be as they feel comfortable, dress as they feel comfortable, and they can deliver to our customers much better.
Virgin Atlantic chief executive Shai Weiss said: “The world has moved on and so has Richard Branson. Would I turn people upside down? Its not my style. But we all know the world has changed. He grabbed attention, he sold tickets and made everyone laugh – and there are different ways to do that today.
*Virgin Atlantic provided the Guardian trip to Tampa