A few week’s after Virgin Blue began flying in 2000 its co-founder and now departing CEO Brett Godfrey said a key element of its business plan was to ‘be different from everyone else.’
This principle was abundantly obvious at the Brett Unbuckled farewell event at The Ivy in Sydney last night.
You knew it was going to be really different when former Qantas CEO Geoff Dixon mounted the Virgin Blue podium to make no bones about how he had firmly believed and wished they would have gone broke within their first year.
Or when Max Moore-Wilton recounted how he had been on board Air Force 2 with John Howard being evacuated from Washington DC after 9-11 when the PM killed at long range a proposal that was gaining momentum in his absence to spend $750 million ‘saving’ Ansett, which went down shortly after the terrorist attacks on America.
Or when Heathery Jeffery, as mistress of ceremonies, lamented a lack of funny photos of incoming CEO John Borghetti so screened a Photoshopped image of the former Qantas executive general manager as he might appear at a staff party, or on a Carnival float in Rio de Janeiro.
Or when Brett Godfrey was presented with a solid gold, sapphire and diamond encrusted Velocity card, which included on the obverse in engraved fine print life time free travel on the services of Virgin Blue group carriers….subject to space being available.
But going back over the notes of many Godfrey interviews, it is clear that he had ambitions to make Virgin Blue anything but a standard Southwest or Ryanair type of low cost carrier from a very early stage.
In one interview in 2002, shortly before gaining access to the former Ansett terminal at Sydney Airport, Godfrey set out the need to offer more than just low fares and says “We might call it a new world carrier, or something like that.” He also mentioned overseas long haul expansion, starting with flights to the US, at a future stage, and by late 2004 had mentioned in passing more than once the possibility of ordering a second type of jet for domestic services, which happened with the introduction of Embraer E-jets.
To the best of my recollection, this was about the time the last business traveller on any of its services was subjected to involuntary face painting .
Basically, Godfrey said a lot of things that the general media generally never picked up on. There was a legacy mind set about the reporting of airline affairs that couldn’t accept that the much derided ‘middle way’ was also a very good place to be in a domestic market.
But in fact, it was where the overwhelming proportion of frequent domestic flights are made. Not in a business class cabin that major corporations and government departments use for a much diminished proportion of bookings. And not in a punitive low cost format that lacked the frequency, and the booking processes that allow companies to manage their travel budgets in an effective and tax deductible manner.
The money was to be made in ‘the middle’, in frequent, higher quality economy class offerings, which was where Godfrey kept the Virgin Blue product unmoved by the bleatings of experts, or even one time major shareholder Chris Corrigan, that the company was being destroyed from above by premium product and from below by cheap rock bottom fares.
The Virgin Blue that Brett Godfrey ran for ten years (until midnight Friday) with the backing of co-founder Richard Branson, and the company’s first deputy CEO, Rob Sherrard, finally broke the grip that established legacy airlines had on Australian aviation.
It made money, and it expanded. And it changed people’s lives for the better.
Godfrey and his teams didn’t just change things for the better for those they employed. They changed things for millions of travellers by providing affordable air fares. And they caused price competition which saves many hundreds of live each year by discouraging people from driving long distances between capitals or to holiday destinations.
The road toll is not just down to around one third of its historic highs because of much needed measures such as RBT and speed cameras and airbags and anti-skid technology. It is down because exposure to the risks of long distance driving fatigue and country roads in general has been reduced by the availability of cheap fares the legacy thinking of established airlines insisted was unsustainable.
It was also acknowledged by Geoff Dixon last night, (who is the first and only Australian airline CEO to have ever made over one billion dollars in pre tax profits for his shareholders) that Virgin Blue caused Qantas to set up its own low cost brand in Jetstar. (Which is where it has most recently reported its main source of profits.)
Dixon’s view is that in the end the Virgin success cost Qantas nothing, because it has given the country two large, viable and fiercely competitive airline groups.
Virgin Blue knows how to party. In December 2002 on the day Virgin Blue took over the Ansett gates at Sydney’s T2, a rock group Liberty X, got up on top of the check-in desk and blasted the ghosts of past but exclusive glories. It was a Rome falls to the Visigoths sort of event, if you can have one of those in an airport terminal.
At the close of the main event last night (after which everyone went up to the Ivy Penthouse) a chorus line of Virgin Blue girls and boys swept up to the stage around Brett Godfrey, who danced, waved, and did a few air guitar riffs. All to a standing ovation.
I couldn’t see the expressions on the faces of Geoff Dixon, or Alan Joyce, his first CEO of Jetstar, and his successor at Qantas.
But I’m sure they noticed their former colleague and Qantas executive general manager, John Borghetti, leap up on the stage too, and become a part of the Virgin dance.