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April 7, 2011

It's not everyday that you get on a plane with someone who's been to the moon, and someone who has his own spaceship, but that's exactly what I did yesterday on an early morning flight out of San Francisco International. Among other celebs and VIPs (Rachel Hunter included, oddly) aboard Virgin America's inaugural flight 2001 from their old home in the International Terminal to the newly renovated Terminal 2, Buzz Aldrin and Virgin's "Pioneer In Chief" Richard Branson were the most notable passengers taking part in the festivities. As Virgin Galactic's WhiteKnightTwo joined our Airbus A320 in formation above the Bay Area before landing on parallel runways at SFO, I got a chance to sit down with Branson to ask a few quick questions.

Virgin's "Pioneer in Chief" Richard Branson sits down for a quick chat.
Virgin's "Pioneer in Chief" Richard Branson sits down for a quick chat.
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Virgin America is welcomed to its new home at SFO's Terminal 2 by Virgin Galactic's <i>WhiteKnightTwo</i> and a gaggle of press.
Virgin America is welcomed to its new home at SFO's Terminal 2 by Virgin Galactic's WhiteKnightTwo and a gaggle of press.
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Virgin Galactic's New Mexico Spaceport was designed by Foster+Partners and is now under construction.
Virgin Galactic's New Mexico Spaceport was designed by Foster+Partners and is now under construction.
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Mike Oldfield's 1973 <i>Tubular Bells</i> was the first release on Branson's then-virgin Virgin Records.
Mike Oldfield's 1973 Tubular Bells was the first release on Branson's then-virgin Virgin Records.
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Virgin's "Pioneer in Chief" Richard Branson sits down for a quick chat.
Virgin's "Pioneer in Chief" Richard Branson sits down for a quick chat.

As a record label, and airline, and even a cola, Virgin has always had such a clearly defined brand. A large part of that brand, to me, seems to be a thoughtful approach to design—from the logo to space we're in right now. What is the Virgin design ethos?
I think that design is so, so important. There's absolutely no point in building a spaceship unless it's a classy-looking spaceship. That's half the thing. There's no point in building a Spaceport unless it's a futuristic, classy-looking spaceport—which is exactly why I wanted to work with Norman Foster. There's no point in creating a domestic airline unless you get all the little details right—the lighting, the ambiance, the seating, every little thing. One thing that's made Virgin stand out from the competition is the effort we've put in on the design. We've got a great in-house team, who I think really enjoy what they do, like to have fun, and you can see it in the results.
On the subject of air travel, all of the efforts Virgin is making to be a more sustainable airline are admirable, but the elephant in the room remains our dependence on fossil fuels. What is being done in terms of searching for alternatives?
As you may know, all the profits we make from our airlines are put into investing into clean fuels. With our partners we developed a fuel, called Isobutanol, which is 98% carbon neutral, and we think it will be very exciting. My hope is that in three to six years from now our planes will be utilizing only clean fuels. And I think that if the prices of fuel stay up over $100, it should be economically viable to do.
Just how realistic is it for us to hang onto our 20th-century notion of air travel? Should we be able to cross the Atlantic in a matter of hours, or is there a place for something akin to the Slow Food movement—a slow travel movement?
If we could save fuel by crossing the Atlantic in eight hours rather than five-and-a-half hours most of our passengers would much rather we did because they could get a decent night's sleep. But you can't at the moment save fuel that way. So I think the other alternative is this spaceship on our left. If we can pop it out of the earth's atmosphere and back down again and transport people in, say, two hours from continent from continent—which one day I think we can do—that could be done at a fraction of the fuel cost. Imagine that we could move people from, say, San Francisco to Sydney in something like two and half hours.

On the other hand there is something to be said for bringing back the giant old airships, but I think realistically we need to come up with technological break-throughs that bring the price of traveling down both from a carbon output point of view and hard costs.

Virgin America is welcomed to its new home at SFO's Terminal 2 by Virgin Galactic's <i>WhiteKnightTwo</i> and a gaggle of press.
Virgin America is welcomed to its new home at SFO's Terminal 2 by Virgin Galactic's WhiteKnightTwo and a gaggle of press.

Going into the deep sea with Virgin Oceanic, and into space with Virgin Galactic, it seems to me like you're really having an Arthur C. Clarke moment. Were you a fan?
I was an Arthur C. Clarke fan, I was, but I also loved books like Around The World in 80 Days with balloons and submarines and all sorts of vehicles. It's just great to be able to make all these dreams come true. It's fantastic that yesterday I was sitting on our sub that should be capable of going 18,000 feet deeper than any sub has ever been and then today to be looking out at our spaceship that should be able to take ordinary people into space for the first time. It's tremendously exciting. So I'm making my own dreams come true and hopefully making other people's dreams come true as well.
Virgin Galactic's New Mexico Spaceport was designed by Foster+Partners and is now under construction.
Virgin Galactic's New Mexico Spaceport was designed by Foster+Partners and is now under construction.

[photos:4:down]Speaking of making your dreams come true, do you ever look around at everything you've been able to accomplish and say, 'Thank you Mike Oldfield?'
Yeah I do. Tubular Bells—if you remember the sleeve of the album—looked like a spaceship, or something going through space itself, with the crashing waves below. Without Mike Oldfield, and without Tubular Bells its quite likely that none of us would be sitting here today. I'll give Mike a ring when we land.


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