Virgin Adventures: V Australia takes off

V Australia’s Sydney launch party at Cockatoo Island is still in full swing as we cross midnight and the airline’s launch day finally arrives. The party forms part of my Virgin ’round the world in eight days’ adventure, which I am sharing with a small group of journalists, Stefan the pilot and Sir Richard Branson.

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We have already travelled from London to Sydney, via Hong Kong. We’ve been to Virgin Active’s Australian launch event and looked on as Richard unveiled Virgin’s new round the world fares.

Our fly on the wall Virgin press trip diary - which I am also covering live via Twitter - continues…

Sydney, Los Angeles and London (Thursday 26 February – Sunday 1 March)

This is where my Virgin ’round the world in eight days’ adventure began to resemble groundhog day. I have two Fridays, starting and ending with a V Australia launch party. By now, I’ve given up on my body clock anyhow.

My last blog left off just as Richard Branson made his entrance to the Sydney launch party in true Virgin style, Bond theme music playing as he descended from a helicopter, flanked by red sequin-draped girls with model looks and the even more glamorous Australian drag queen, Mitsy.

The party then gets fully underway with plenty of singing and scantily clad dancers. Listen carefully for the lyrics which have been changed for the occasion.

During the remainder of the evening Stefan used his VIP access to mingle with a few stars, aided by a lovely young lady named Bel. He’s pictured below making friends with some of the paint-clad lovelies who opened the event and meeting Katrina Roundtree, who presents the Aussie travel show ‘Getaway’. Unfortunately Virgin suffered a sense of humour failure when it came to Richard being photographed with Stefan, so that particular shot is missing from the album. There’s an amusing moment when Richard knocks off Stefan’s hat and, smiling and apologising, helps search for it among a sea of stiletto-clad feet.



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Festivities are momentarily halted for a high-yielding charity auction in aid of Red Cross Australia, which is co-ordinating the relief effort for victims of the country’s devastating bush fires. A private concert with Natalie Imbruglia sells for A$30,000 and two holidays on Necker Island with Richard fetch A$45,000 and $50,000 respectively. I drop out of the bidding. I’m not convinced work will authorise my expenses claim.

I meet Virgin Blue CEO Brett Godfrey and his wife during the party and somehow our initial meeting descends into a spoof piece to camera, although no film is rolling. The content of the interview will never be published, but it’s immediately apparent that this CEO has a fantastic sense of humour and an easy-going style.

The party winds down by 02:00, but work keeps me occupied until I finally succumb to sleep at 07:30. Burning the candle at both ends is becoming a theme of this trip. Not many hours later we gather in the lobby, awaiting a transfer to Sydney Airport for V Australia’s first flight, to Los Angeles.

The check-in area is filled with blue and yellow balloons, promoting California as a holiday destination and the whole place ripples with excitement. Formalities are completed and a press conference is staged in the check-in area, but the executives are barely audible over the hubbub. I get the gist and quickly file a story back to the office. The new team poses for a photocall. Brett is wearing the grey suit in the image below.

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I rapidly learn to associate cute little touches with V Australia. My boarding pass is presented to me in a cover, labelled ‘Boarding Pass Boarding House’. It carries the explanation: “Everything needs a home. Birds have nests, bats have caves and believe it or not trolls reside under bridges. And now your boarding passes have a place to call home too.”

The theme is continued on the boarding card itself: “The Big Bit: This part of your ticket is fiercely loyal to its owner. While the Stub coverts off to who knows where, The Big Bit sticks around to help you to your seat. Treat it well, and it will be yours forever.” Its smaller sister adds: “The Stub. Ever wonder where this goes? So do we.”

After a brief spell in the Malaysian Airlines lounge, we head to the gate where VA001 is slowly boarding. The Boeing 777-300ER is named ‘Didgeree Blue’ and registered VH-VOZ, which Brett later tells me was the tail number of Virgin Blue’s original aircraft. The red tee-shirt clad crowd gradually disappears into the aircraft and the reason for the wait finally becomes clear. Brett and Richard are greeting every passenger on boarding and most of them want a photo. Richard sees me and smiles. “I’m so sorry for losing the hat last night!” he exclaims, referring to Stefan’s easily-mislaid accessory.

The doors close and we push back at 15:17 to a celebratory round of applause. The V Australia quirkiness continues with the most entertaining in-flight safety video I’ve ever seen, including a cartoon Branson look-a-like who signs his autograph for a fellow passenger. There are other quips, such as “in case you haven’t taken a plane in the last century, it is important to remind you this is a non-smoking flight” and “please ensure that your seat is in the upright position, your tray-table is folded away, and that your hair is just right”. The follow-up stills after the briefing stick to the theme: “No smoking please. This is not the 70s.”

VH-VOZ takes to the skies on her first revenue flight at 15:35, met by whoops and applause all round. The cabin crew are beaming and the champagne is soon flowing for an inaugural toast. A tannoy announcement queries how many revenue passengers are present in the business cabin. The count stops at two. I close my eyes for a few moments and my seat suddenly reclines. I open them to see Brett, who has decided to give me a touch of personal service with a camera crew looking on. I query whether this CEO service is part of V Australia’s standard product. He heads off to mingle and moments later I discover that the seats have a back massage function. I think I’ll stay put a while longer.

We reach the cruise and the electric atmosphere begins to settle, so it’s time for some more Virgin humour. We are introduced to some of the cabin crew, who have allegedly been vying for positions with V Australia. First up there’s 33 year-old Bernadette, who apparently works on Qantas’ short-haul network. She moans “I haven’t had a decent route in years” and lashes out at the V Australia crew, saying “any younger and you’ll have to call it Air Embryo, Richard.”

Julie Jetstar then bounds in to the cabin with bags of enthusiasm and her animated prancing momentarily threatens us with an unscheduled glimpse of the 777′s cargo hold. My glass of champagne is mine-sweeped by Bernadette and moments later Brett and Richard are receiving one-to-one customer service from the girls. Later on we’re joined by Carol-Anne from United and her friend.

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Thankfully the V Australia cabin crew who made the grade resume their duties, giving us all a kiss on the cheek goodnight and a chocolate set of lips. I’m left wondering whether this, too, is part of the normal service routine.

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As the flight progresses, Richard models some V Australia-branded boxershorts and a couple of the stewardesses don the female version. As the film rolls and camera flashes fire, one of the girls posing with Brett exclaims “my mum’s gonna kill me”, drawing chuckles all round.




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The alcohol flows, bringing the noise down to a dull roar, so I seize the opportunity to do a three-minute video interview with Brett and a piece to camera update.

Dinner is served and I meet with the Virgin Blue chief again, this time at the bar, for a one-to-one interview. The material will be used as part of a cover feature for the April edition of Airline Business magazine.

 

 

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 Mid-interview, Richard comes over with a huge, boyish grin on his face. He’s holding a white cup and saucer. “You’ve got to see this,” he says. He lifts the cup to reveal ”look, a flying saucer”, written in red block capitals beneath. Richard rushes off to show his son, Sam, who is in the neighbouring cabin. Here, between the bulkheads, a single row of two-three-two seats can be curtained off into three private areas. ”They loved it,” he says, still clasping the saucer, as he makes his way back to the party up front.

 

The interview is again halted as Brett is passed a greetings card from a group of staff, labelling themselves as ‘the 13 hour turnaround team’. Brett explains that they’re flying to LA and straight back so that they won’t miss work on Monday. Addressed to ‘the V Musketeers’, the card contains a hand-written poem:

Qantas think they’re hot with their A-Three-Eighty

Check out what we’ve got, a new Boeing sexy lady

With a shiny coat of paint and stars to match

To and from LA, who you gonna catch?

We’ve only flown once, but it’s plain to see…

The new “spirit of Australia” starts with a V.

We finish the interview and there’s a chance for some sleep before the aircraft touches down in Los Angeles at 09:37 to more applause and cheering. “Thank you for making V Australia history,” says a member of cabin crew over the tannoy. Richard then adds his thanks as the aircraft receives its customary watery welcome from the airport’s fire trucks. With droplets still streaming down the window, we pull up on stand for an on time arrival, spot on 10:00. Brett’s on hand to present certificates to every disembarking passenger as we begin our second Friday 27 February.

Stalled by US immigration, we catch the end of the arrival press conference at the airport before jumping into a stretch limo. It draws up to the hotel, where I’ve got a rapid turnaround. The tight time constraints become even tighter as I battle against an Internet connection problem and some mislaid bags which made it all the way from Sydney, but got lost during the hotel transfer. I’ve got to dash back to the airport with Virgin’s PR director, the photographer and camera man to do the Airline Business cover shoot. 

Back at the airport, we wait at the Virgin America check-in area and, as we look on, the staff perform a series of ad-hoc sequence dances. The Virgin spirit seems to be pretty consistent around the network.

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Airline Business’ April cover will capture the CEOs of Virgin America, Virgin Atlantic and Virgin Blue in front of their respective tail fins, which are now gathered in Los Angeles for the first time. I’m also due to interview the three chiefs all together, gathering material for what promises to be an unusual feature.

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Time is running tight as we wrap up by the aircraft, which have drawn a crowd of airside spectators. Virgin Atlantic CEO Steve Ridgeway (shown back right in the image below) has just flown in from London. Brett arrived on the inaugural and we’ve been joined by Virgin America chief David Cush (front left). The jet lag creates a sense of urgency and we decide to do the interview in a people carrier, en route to our respective hotels. A three-to-one interview is apparently not enough of a challenge. Fortunately, I manage to suppress my car sickness for the duration. 

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Banter is strong among the three executives as they answer the same question in turn, playing our newly-invented game of ‘airline CEO pass the dictaphone’. Steve’s one-to-one session is done on the terminal front at LAX and David’s wraps up as we pull up at his hotel. This is easily the strangest and most colourful interview I’ve ever done.

Another quick turnaround and we head to the hotel roof terrance for drinks with Richard, Sam and the rest of the team. The champagne tap is turned on again, before we depart for a second launch party, LA-style, at celebrity hang-out Chateau Marmont.

DSCN3461.JPGThe party is a very glam affair with plenty of personalities, including Australian actress and singer Holly Valance. The statutory flow of champagne resumes.

Our models from Sydney return for their second appearance, sporting a new coat of paint, and a mirror image of last night’s musical entertainment kicks off on stage – only today it’s lacking the abseiling commandoes and Branson’s dramatic helicopter entrance. This time he appears with a live sheep, which he hands to one of the singers. Aussie humour, perhaps?

The female contingent of our party flag early and we head back to the hotel at around midnight. Apparently the party continues in a hotel suite until 04:00. I’m happily tucked up by 02:00. 

Safely stowed away on my camcorder are a couple of film clips of the night’s entertainment.

 

Saturday morning and I’m back at the laptop, filing copy for Air Transport Intelligence about V Australia’s aircraft deferral plans. I hit the send key and rush down to the lobby to catch our limo to the airport. Our crowd is quiet after last night’s festivities and I push on with some more articles while we wait in the lounge for boarding.

Virgin Atlantic flight VS008 to Heathrow is announced. Richard casually strolls up to the gate and I smile as a lady looks on in stunned awe, then rapidly points out the Virgin entrepreneur to her young son.

We take our seats on board G-VFOX, which we last saw on the Heathrow-Hong Kong-Sydney leg of our journey. We all gather around a random seat for a casual chat, a glass of champagne in hand. Richard entertains us with stories of a practical joke which backfired and caused him to spend a night in the cells - set up by the original target of his joke. He tells colourful tales of how he narrowly missed out on a Dire Straits record deal and rights to the board game Trivial Pursuit. We’re all smiling as we head back to our respective seats.

Our final flight pushes back from its Los Angeles stand at 17:57 and gets airborne at 18:09, giving us a stunningly clear aerial view of the city’s lights. I spend the first three hours of the return flight preparing seven real-time news stories, so that they can be released on Monday morning in Asia – Sunday night in the UK. The laptop dies (thanks to problems with the in-seat power) and I settle down for some sleep, which never comes. A few hours later, as I’m eating my breakfast, I feel a playful tap on my shoulder. I look around to see Richard stood behind my seat, wishing me good morning. Receiving a personal greeting from the president over breakfast? That’s personal service. I make a mental note to pass this tip on to Brett.

Gloomy grey clouds greet us during our descent into the UK, in sharp contrast with the glorious Sydney sunshine from our Friday ‘mark one’. Our flight touches down at Heathrow at 11:59 on Sunday 1 March and we reach our stand at 12:06, achieving our ’round the world’ in eight days objective. Richard poses for a final photo shoot in front of the aircraft, world map in hand.

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We fetch our luggage and, as our unlikely world traveller group disbands, goodbyes are said all round. The limos are on hand to whisk us back to real life.

I unlock my door and check my watch; our door-to-door Virgin ’round the world in eight days’ journey has lasted a total of seven days, 20 hours and 45 minutes.

I’ve circumnavigated the globe, measuring roughly 24,900 miles at the equator. I’ve visited four continents, flown four flights on two aircraft, and have racked up a total flying time of 43 hours and 12 minutes – nearly two whole days in the air.

I’ve been entertained by Richard Branson and Natalie Imbruglia, climbed 1,090 steps up the Sydney Harbour Bridge, experienced my first sea plane flight, worn a bikini on Bondi Beach, eaten in a hotel kitchen, seen my first real-life duck-billed platypus and participated in a piece of Australian aviation history. I’ve averaged five hours’ sleep a night, found out who Richard would invite to a virtual dinner party and have written 11,765 words, spread across 135 tweets, five blogs and nine real-time news stories.

All-in-all, I’m exhausted. But, as far as seven-day, 20-hour and 45 minute-periods go in my life, this one hasn’t been bad…and it will stick with me for a very, very long time to come.

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One Response to Virgin Adventures: V Australia takes off

  1. Lavenia Lunney 24 February, 2010 at 4:02 pm #

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