Sir Richard Branson has done enough for three lifetimes. Now at age 57, he is starting another new airline. Virgin America starts flying from New York to San Francisco Wednesday, offering satellite TV, video games, mood lighting, leather seats — and promises low prices, too.
If the airline makes any money, it all goes to the fight against global climate change. Branson also says he wants to offer Americans a better option in the wake of one of the worst summers for flying that has seen planes full of people sitting on tarmacs for hours. The U.S. airline industry is rife with bankruptcies and union problems, but Branson says it is the perfect time for him to start an airline.
"Obviously, we'll have the advantage that our planes will be brand new so they'll be more reliable," he told The Early Show co-anchor Harry Smith. "The quality of most big American carriers is pretty dire. When somebody walks onto a Virgin America plane, they're going to go 'wow' because it's really going to knock them out. If there is a delay because of weather or because of air traffic control, we'll have the best entertainment system anywhere in the world. So at least they'll be entertained whilst they're delayed. But obviously, hopefully, the fact we've got young planes and we're not over scheduling our planes will mean we won't have too many delays."
It seems like a great plan, but Branson says many people have told him he's crazy; something he has heard many times in his life. But he said he is committed to creating the best product possible and, if he does that, it will endure.
"I think I crossed the Atlantic with Virgin Atlantic, we created one of the best airlines in the world and it survived after 21 years," he said. "I think if Virgin America becomes known as the best airline in America, it should survive and thrive."
On top of that Branson sees the green movement not just as something to be concerned about, but also as a business opportunity. All the profits from Virgin America will be invested in developing clean fuels, which, as the market for green products widens, could also become profitable.
"If we can come up with a fuel that replaces gasoline, then I'm sure we'll make a penny," Branson said.
Meanwhile, Branson and Nelson Mandela launched a group called the Council of Elders, comprised of world leaders who will come together to try to find solutions to the world's problems.
"Nelson Mandela, I suspect, is the most respected person in the world," Branson said. "He's 89 years old. He will not live forever. He has managed single-handedly to go in and resolve conflicts by being an elder, going along to these young soldiers and knocking heads together and saying, you know, stop it. And what he believes and what we believe is if you can have 12 Nelson Mandelas — the 12 most respected women and men in the world — who would be capable together to go into conflict situations and try to resolve them, that they'd have a reasonable chance of doing so. And so the elders have been formed by Nelson Mandela and that's a wonderful team of people behind the elders to try to give them all the support they need to do their job well."
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