Virgin Atlantic Airlines: flying to London can be cheap - and fun, too

Virgin Atlantic Airlines is perhaps the world's first airline to be founded just for fun. Its unlikely owner is Richard Branson, a multimillionaire British pop record entrepreneur, who says he has entered the airline business to give himself and the budget traveler a good time.

And a good time was reported to have been had by all on Virgin's celebrity-studded June 22 maiden flight between London's Gatwick Airport and Newark, N.J.

The flight costs the passenger (STR)119 ($189) from July 1 through Sept. 15., with a (STR)10 ($13.50) weekend surcharge for passengers departing from London. (Passengers flying out of Newark pay a $3 departure tax.)

Modestly assuming the mantle of Britain's Sir Freddie Laker, whose budget air service Skytrain folded two years ago, Branson is assuring the now-wary British traveler that his airline is solidly backed by his pop empire, which turns over that passengers' ticket money will be refunded should his fledgling airline run into trouble.

But Branson, speaking from his houseboat on Regent's Canal here, sees mostly clear skies ahead. He feels that his idea - to offer the budget traveler more fun and comfort for his money - is bound to be a winner.

''So . . . cheap, discount travel has been a no-frills approach,'' Branson says. ''We've found that to offer the passenger full frills doesn't cost the airline that much extra.'' He plans to challenge his closest rival on the transatlantic budget route, People Express, by offering the following extras for the cost of the ticket:

* A free four-course meal.

* Afternoon tea.

* Free soft drinks.

* Free 20-kilogram (44-pound) baggage allowance.

Although the one-way transatlantic fare on Virgin is about (STR)10 ($13.50) higher than on People Express, Branson says the extras he is offering more than compensate for the difference.

But what Branson believes he is really offering the passenger is a snazzier image with which to identify.

A 747 painted scarlet and white - so far the only plane Virgin Atlantic has in service - boasts a Pop Art motif on the tail. The crews wear uniforms designed by the young British fashion designer Arabella Pollen, a favorite of the Princess of Wales.

Branson says that an advanced stereo and video system has been installed on the Virgin jet and that, although passengers will have to pay a standard fee for renting headphones, they will get a more comfortable and efficient pair for their money.

Branson plans soon to add a children's section to his plane, where families can sit with less concern about disturbing other passengers and where cartoons will be shown instead of a conventional movie.

''I'd like to think that our concern for safety and efficiency goes without saying,'' the soft-spoken Branson says. ''When we thought of starting this airline, we asked ourselves, How would we like to be treated? Although the rest of my company (Virgin Records) is aimed at the younger market, we're interested in getting everyone, including grandmothers, to ride on this airline.''

Branson says he hopes that even those who can afford to pay full fare on the more established airlines will choose to fly Virgin because of its image of fun. For those who insist on paying more, he is offering the nonbudget flier a first-class seat at a standard airline price of (STR)1,013 ($1,365) that includes meals supplied by Maxim's of Paris.

Most of the pilots on the six crews that will staff Virgin Airlines are former British Airways personnel; Branson stresses that although the name Virgin Airlines might imply inexperience, the aviation authorities put the airplane and its crews through ''millions of tests'' before the US and British licenses were granted. Virgin got its permission to fly just as the lucrative summer season was about to begin.

The bearded Branson is a well-known figure in Britain, where his record company has contracts with the controversial pop singer Boy George, among others , but Branson admits that he will need to gain more recognition in the United States if his airline is really to take off.

Bookings for the summer are already very solid, he asserts; should this effort prove as successful as it has thus far, Branson hopes to expand slowly but surely to include a (STR)20 ($27) one-way service to London from Maastricht in Holland so as to attract the continental passenger to his transatlantic service, plus a route to the West Indies (Barbados) in the autumn and eventually flights to Australia.

But for now, Virgin Atlantic Airlines is enjoying its ingenue role in the big time. Practical information:

Reservations may be made by calling New York (212) 243-1464; Newark, N.J. ( 201) 624-6855; or Ticketron or Sears outlets.

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