He was caught climbing down the window of a girl’s dormitory one night. She was no other than his headmaster’s daughter
This piece is not about aircraft accidents and related incidents. It is rather about two persons who ended up running airlines more as a digression than by design. They, in their own rebellious ways, confronted bigger airlines in their own game and left them licking their wounds. Stories related to Richard Branson, Virgin’s flamboyant boss, and Ryanair’s sharp-tongued Michal O’Leary, are unbelievably interesting in that sense. It is amazing that Branson, equipped with nothing more than a high school dropout tag, ended up attaining what most can only dream about.
It was taken more as a prank when he ventured to buy a £5 million Caribbean island when he had nothing to pay for it. But, eventually, he ended up buying it, showing his tenacity in achieving his goal, however impossible it may once have appeared.
Ryanair’s O’Leary, on the other hand, is infamous for his often outrageous utterances, making headlines befitting tabloids. As a result, others in the airline industry did not take him seriously, at least not during his early years. It will be injustice to cram both in one piece; so we will fly with O’Leary later, separately.
Off a cliff
At 16, Branson started a youth magazine called Student. He seems to have realized quite early that by thus engaging himself he was learning more than he would have in school. As a dyslexic child he had problems with numbers, with spelling and even reading. Naturally, such pupils often end up at the bottom of the class and Branson was no exception. This was possibly what prompted him to drop out. But there was no escaping from exams even if one bunked classes. To pass, he tried cheating, but found managing chits in his pockets rather daunting.
A funny story relates how he was caught climbing down the window of a girl’s dormitory one night. Interestingly, the girl was no other than his headmaster’s daughter! Having been expelled from the school and fearing parental wrath, he headed off to a nearby cliff. But he let out the secret to a school loudmouth first. As the result, a crowd led by teachers, made a mad rush to grab hold of him before he jumped off the cliff. Predictably, it ended like a Hindi cinema. He got reinstated faster than he was expelled.
While working for the magazine, he made a big break by catching Beatles crown jewel John Lennon for an interview. Branson later moved on to music record business and made illegal money by selling record discs. He was caught, imprisoned and made to pay a hefty penalty, many times more than what he illegally made. It marked a turning point in his life—he promised never again to get on the wrong side of the law. He developed a habit of keeping a notebook and jotting down everything possible so that it would help him remember any conversation, commitments or new ideas that came to him. His has kept up his notebook habit.
Once, when in the Caribbean, his flight to Puerto Rico was cancelled, leaving all passengers in a lurch. With his mind alert to a chance of making money, he managed to charter an aircraft, then and there, and sold every seat on the “Virgin Airways”. He probably did not make any profit as he simply divided the charter charges by the number of seats. But this was a totally unrelated and impromptu move; he was still years away from getting seriously involved with an airline.
In 1982 Freddie Laker, pioneer of no-frills airline, began operating low-fare scheduled services between London and New York. But it was driven out of business by established airlines undercutting their transatlantic fares. As such, its Gatwick Airport (LGW) slots were available and Branson espied an opportunity. He was unsure whether it was legally right, or if Sir Freddie would be cross. It was a relief that Laker was more than delighted and actually saw Branson as his successor, picking up the flag where he would leave it.
Once Virgin Airways came into being, British Airways (BA) resorted to the same old trick. But Branson was no Laker; he took BA to court and gave it a bloody nose by making it pay a hefty £610,000 sum for the mischief. In a different sort of gang-up later, British Airways and American Airlines tried to form an alliance. But he strongly opposed this as it would neither be in the interest of the consumer nor was it a fair business practice. Opposing it in every manner possible, Branson had a message painted on every Virgin aircraft, in bold, that read “BA AA No Way”. It could be read miles off in air and at every airport Virgin flew into.
On his last school day a teacher had predicted that Branson would either end up in prison or be a millionaire. He achieved, not one, but both, as prophesied; only that he became a millionaire many times over. It is indeed unbelievable that a person of such a poor background ended up becoming what he is today, an owner of about 400 Virgin affiliated companies. At the company headquarter he is known as “Dr. Yes”, because he never seems to say no to anything, unlike many of us.
Not to undermine the contributions of the clever and the honest, one wonders if Branson experience is applicable in our context. Come to think of it, we might even end up being a great country of entrepreneurs if only a fraction of our exam cheaters, school dropouts and those who make illegal money in innovative ways, were to turn over a new leaf, whether they are convicted or not! Or like things promised and delivered in the past 10-15 years, this too ends as a disappointing joke.