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Richard Branson
Virgin billionaire Richard Branson reflects on the passing of Virgin America. (Virgin Photo)

The Virgin Group’s billionaire founder, Richard Branson, says “many tears” are being shed over Alaska Airlines’ decision to retire the Virgin America brand in the wake of its $4 billion acquisition.

Branson bid farewell to the brand in a “Dear Virgin America” letter posted online today, even though the brand isn’t likely to be phased out until 2019.

He compared the news of the phase-out to his 1992 sale of Virgin Records for $1 billion, “which we needed to fight off British Airways’ Dirty Tricks campaign to try to put Virgin Atlantic out of business.

“With a lot of things in life, there is a point where we have to let go and appreciate the fact that we had this ride at all,” Branson said. Most of the letter was devoted to a walk down memory lane, from the company’s launch day in 2007, through zany promotions such as an in-flight wedding performed by Branson, an in-flight Skype session with Oprah Winfrey and the annual Chihuahua airlift.

Branson couldn’t block last year’s sale because Virgin Group owned less than 25 percent of Virgin America’s voting shares, due to U.S. regulatory requirements. But that didn’t stop him from offering advice to Virgin America’s “Teammates”:

“I know that you will continue to do great things, whether you stay on with Alaska or pursue a different path. Build a business that puts its people first. Work with partners who share your same progressive and inclusive values. Focus on delivering a great customer experience, and success will come. Make business a force for good. Stay positive; attitude is everything.”

Branson also touted the travel ventures that remain firmly in the Virgin fold:

“You would not believe the number of people who tell me how much they love flying Virgin America. Keep expecting – and demanding – more from your airlines! If you miss flying Virgin America, you still have your beautiful sisters; Virgin Atlantic is starting service from London to Seattle next week, and Virgin Australia is starting direct service from Melbourne to Hong Kong the week after that. Virgin flies on.”

And he picked up on an opportunity to link the transition to the music business, where Britain’s “Rebel Billionaire” got his start 45 years ago:

“George Harrison once said, ‘All Things Must Pass.’ This was the ride and love of a lifetime. I feel very lucky to have been on it with all of you. I’m told some people at Virgin America are calling today ‘the day the music died.’ It is a sad (and some would say baffling) day. But I’d like to assure them that the music never dies.”

Although Branson is clearly broken up over the demise of the Virgin America brand, he must take some small consolation from the estimated $688 million that the Virgin Group got out of Alaska’s acquisition.

Branson will no doubt reflect further on Virgin America’s transition next week when he comes to Seattle, Alaska Airlines’ home base, to celebrate Virgin Atlantic’s upgraded service to London and preside over a VIP forum for local entrepreneurs.

Update for 5:20 p.m. PT March 23: Virgin Atlantic paid tribute to Virgin America’s legacy today by releasing a lighthearted but bittersweet video (and launching a contest for tickets to London):

Stay tuned for more about Branson’s business perspective and the goings-on at next Tuesday’s “Business Is an Adventure” forum in Seattle.

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