When Terminal 5 (T5) was opened at Heathrow Airport on 27 March this year, by Queen Elizabeth II no less, officials at British Airways (BA) and the British Airport Authority had no inkling of the chaos that would ensue. By mid-April some senior officials had been fired, 300 flights cancelled and some 20,000 bags misplaced. The hi-tech airport expansion project had been an utter fiasco and BA took a hit of £16 million (around Rs136 crore) in losses from disrupted operations.
While T5 became the butt of jokes and comedy routines worldwide, Steve Ridgeway, CEO of Virgin Atlantic Airways (VAA), was quite pleased with himself. Four months before T5 was complete, Virgin had announced the opening of the cheekily named “Terminal 6” at Heathrow to support all VAA flights.
Calling the revamped old Terminal 3A the “new Terminal 6” is exactly the sort of gimmicky campaign to be expected from Sir Richard Branson’s Virgin stable. And who needs the queen when you have the Spice Girls to open Terminal 6? When Ridgeway talks of that and other old war stories over breakfast at the Hotel Intercontinental in Mumbai, there is an unmistakable gleam in his eyes.
VAA, the jewel of the Virgin group, operates 37 planes connecting more than 30 destinations from its headquarters in London. Ever since it began operations in 1984, the airline has managed to be at the cutting edge of innovative marketing tactics, “Terminal 6” being just one instance of it.
Ridgeway sits across from me at one of the corner tables at the hotel’s coffee shop. The floor-to-ceiling windows frame a spectacular view of the sea by the Marine Drive. Which is, in a way, a perfect setting to sit and talk about Ridgeway’s story.
Plane facts: Ridgeway often travels incognito in rival airlines to check on their quality. (Illustration: Jayachandran / Mint)
That is because this highly regarded aviation CEO wasn’t a man of the skies to start with. Ridgeway had his fortuitous meeting with “the bearded one” not in the air, but while making and selling boats. And prior to that, Ridgeway was part of the short-lived Toleman Formula One team that introduced a talented driver called Ayrton Senna to the sport.
Come to think of it, Ridgeway has absolutely none of the well-earned civil aviation stripes of contemporary airline CEOs.
Ridgeway speaks with a slow, measured semi-whisper that is all business but with none of the airs of a high-profile CEO. He is dressed casually, too: a spotless white shirt with the sleeves rolled up, navy trousers and adequately shiny shoes.
Waving out to a waiter, he asks for a glass of grapefruit juice. A small drama ensues, as the waiter runs back and forth for clarifications with the kitchen. Finally, Ridgeway settles for pineapple juice.
Right across the top of my notebook I have the words “Do not talk about Richard Branson!” written in big block letters, a reminder to keep the interview firmly focused on Ridgeway. This is no easy task. The maverick entrepreneur is synonymous with the Virgin brand, and possibly, their biggest publicity vehicle. In October 2007, Branson bungee-jumped off a Las Vegas casino to promote the new Virgin America airline. Branson bumped into the building twice on his way down and lost the seat of his pants (no really. The seat of his pants actually ripped off).
As Ridgeway bites into a well-buttered and lightly jellied slice of multigrain toast, I ask him how he met Branson and how he went from making boats to running an airline.
It’s not at all surprising that Ridgeway’s first interactions with Branson ended in a daring sea rescue off the coast of England. He was working for Cougar Marine in Miami at the time. “We made fast racing boats that were extremely successful; they won every race everywhere. We then decided that we could market our boats to law enforcement bodies as high-speed gunboats.”
Cougar figured that a crossing of the Atlantic on one of their speedboats would create great media mileage and Ridgeway began working on the project. “Some people on the team knew Richard. He was looking for some publicity for the fledgling Virgin Atlantic Airways and agreed to sponsor the attempt.”
In August 1985, the Virgin Atlantic Challenger set out from New York with Branson and a team of seven. Ridgeway was the project head and lead pilot. They would come agonizingly close to setting the speed record before capsizing just 140 miles off the coast of England. The attempt was a failure, but the mid-sea rescue garnered great media coverage.
The second attempt in 1986 was successful and Virgin Atlantic Challenger II covered the distance in a little more than 80 hours, setting a new record for crossing the Atlantic.
“We quickly knew we were kindred spirits,” Ridgeway recalls (and not just because they were both violently sea sick all across the Atlantic). The duo shared similar instincts and values. “Even our families got along really well!” says Ridgeway.
The crossing made Branson a national figure and threw him and his airline, just established in 1984, firmly into the public eye. Ridgeway went on to other things for a while before Branson called: “He asked me if I wanted to work with the airline. It had grown a fair bit by then and there were a lot of things to do.” In 1989, Ridgeway signed up as managing director of Virgin Freeway, the airline’s frequent flyer programme, a pioneer attempt in itself.
As he scoops out some cereal drenched in milk, Ridgeway casually describes his changing roles in the airline: “I did all sorts of things really, the frequent flyer programme, in-flight services, then I became marketing director…” He took over as chief executive in 2001.
At the time, Ridgeway was part of a large group of people Branson brought in who had little, if any, airline experience. “And this was really our strength. We approached the business differently because of this.” This core group, Ridgeway says, formed the DNA of the young, ambitious airline.
We’re both nursing steaming postprandial brews—tea for Ridgeway, coffee for me, when he admits that keeping the airline “cheeky and irreverent” is a challenge. Virgin expects to hit $5 billion (around Rs21,000 crore) in revenue and employ 10,000 people in 2008. “Touchwood (knocking the table with his knuckles), things have been good for us so far…we’ve doubled in the last four years, hopefully we will keep growing the way we have.”
Many things have gone to make VAA a profitable and competitive airline, he says. The innovation and willingness to experiment are all important. So is the constant pressure to compete with BA, the UK’s flag carrier. “No other airline in the world competes as closely with their national airline,” he explains with some pride.
I ask him what he does on the weekends, when he’s not worrying about Virgin Atlantic. “Oh! I never really stop thinking about Virgin. At my level, you can’t afford to! But the BlackBerry helps me keep in touch all the time. Though I hate it when it goes off in the middle of the night. That’s a real nightmare.”
He often hooks up with good old Richard on Branson’s Necker island getaway in the British Virgin Islands. “We are still very competitive. Racing around… Both of us want to win and a lot of cheating happens!” And apparently, some sinking, too. “Sometimes we hit some reefs and knock the bums off our boats!”
Almost exactly on the hour, the waiter informs us that Ridgeway’s car has arrived. My final question: What must I do the next time I am on Virgin Atlantic and want to get bumped up to first class? Ridgeway smiles, and says: “That’s simple. Pay up the difference. But you probably won’t get a seat. Sometimes even I don’t get seats on a Virgin aeroplane!”
Born: 29 September 1951
Education: BSc economics, London University
Work Profile: Toleman Group, 1979; Cougar Marine, 1981; Virgin Atlantic Airways, managing director, Virgin Freeway, 1990; executive director, customer services, 1994; managing director, 1998; CEO, 2001.
On British Airways: “British...what? Never heard of them.”
Speed Record: Crossed the Atlantic by speedboat in 80 hours and 31 minutes