In the clearest sign yet of aviation’s changing culture, the Virgin Atlantic owner Sir Richard Branson has said he will almost certainly no longer be “turning girls upside down”, signalling an end to a long-established fixture of the airline’s flight promotion.
Branson, who turned 72 in July, said he still remained physically capable of “picking up ladies” – traditionally along the wing of a landed Virgin jumbo jet – but that “times have moved on”.
In Tampa, Florida, to promote the first direct service from Heathrow, the entrepreneur jetskied across the bay alone, admitting to onlookers that once he would have had someone behind him for the ride.
The razzmatazz around Branson’s appearance at Tampa International airport on Thursday, standing on the steps of the arriving Virgin Atlantic plane and in a Tampa Bay Buccaneers American football shirt, remained low-key compared to the sexed-up appearances of old.
In 2005, in one of his most tabloid-friendly promotional stunts, Branson carried and upended an underdressed Pamela Anderson on the wing of a Virgin jumbo at New York’s JFK airport.
Others who donned the regulation red skimpy attire and high heels to strike acrobatic poses with Branson at airports include the British supermodel Kate Moss, brandished aloft by the billionaire at Heathrow in 2009. Another famous “wing walk” saw Branson, then 59, carry the burlesque star Dita Von Teese across a Virgin jumbo in Las Vegas in 2010.
He said such feats now belonged in the past. “There’s no question that in the early days of Virgin, society was very different. I doubt you’ll see me turning girls upside down or picking up ladies today, whereas 38 years ago if I didn’t do that, I wouldn’t get in a newspaper.”
Branson’s last believed public inversion of a female model, wearing a bikini and Russian hat, was in 2012 to promote planned flights to Moscow. By 2014, he was already raising his own kilt in Edinburgh at the launch of an ill-fated domestic Virgin airline offshoot, Little Red.
He said: “You just adapt with the times. And I might soon be getting to an age where I might pull a disc.”
Branson stressed that he was still in good physical shape, having just climbed Mount Kenya, adding: “I can still turn girls upside down. But times have moved on.”
The airline has made a series of statement policy changes in recent years, including lifting the requirements for female cabin crew to wear makeup, allowing crew to have visible tattoos, and in September announcing that people could wear whichever Virgin uniforms they wished, regardless of gender.
A Virgin Atlantic spokesperson said that at least two non-binary staff on its planes were now choosing to wear the burgundy trouser suit instead of the traditional red skirt and jacket. According to the airline, applications for employment have soared since the campaigns to promote its inclusive workplace.
The Varga girl pinups painted on the planes when Branson founded the airline in 1984 have also been gradually replaced by diverse, fully clad figureheads since 2019 – including Billie Holliday on the new Airbus A330neo plane flying the Tampa route.
Branson said he still regarded the airline as a “daughter”, adding: “She’s growing into a wonderful, diverse, happy company. People can be as they feel comfortable, dress as they feel comfortable and they can deliver with our customers much better.”
Virgin Atlantic’s chief executive, Shai Weiss, said: “The world has moved on and so has Richard Branson. Would I turn people upside down? That’s not my style. But we all know the world has changed. He got attention, he sold tickets and made everyone laugh – and there are different ways of doing it today.”
* Virgin Atlantic provided the Guardian’s travel to Tampa