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Richard Branson at Sea-Tac
Richard Branson, pretends he’s an airplane on the runway after the arrival of Virgin Atlantic’s 787-9 Dreamliner jet from London. (Virgin Atlantic Photo)

British billionaire Richard Branson kicked off Virgin Atlantic’s nonstop service from London to Seattle today with a rhetorical kiss for the Emerald City, but also a verbal kick at Seattle-based Alaska Airlines, which is absorbing another one of the airlines he founded.

First, the kiss: Branson took a star turn on the tarmac after Flight 105’s arrival at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport, surrounded by flight attendants bearing Union Jack umbrellas. Wearing blue jeans and a hometown Filson lumberjack jacket, he paid tribute to Seattle’s entrepreneurial bent.

“It’s a city after my own heart,” Branson told a crowd of VIPs and journalists assembled in the airport’s arrival hall. “Very entrepreneurial, some of the greatest entrepreneurs in the world live here.”

The feeling was mutual, judging by the comments made by Port Commissioner John Creighton before Branson took the stage. “I have been advocating since 2006 that we need these guys in Seattle,” he said. “Seattle is a hip city. Virgin Atlantic is a hip airline.”

The point of Branson’s visit to Seattle was to celebrate Virgin Atlantic’s higher profile in Seattle. By virtue of putting a 787-9 Dreaminer jet on the nonstop route it’s taking over from its joint venture partner, Delta Air Lines, Virgin Atlantic will be adding 40,000 seats per year to the London-Seattle run.

Branson joked that he bided his time on starting up the route. “We thought we’d have 33 years practicing on everybody else around the world, because we know how fussy people from Seattle are,” he said. “We think we’ve got it about right now.”

While he’s here, Branson will also be headlining an entrepreneurship forum on Tuesday at Axis Pioneer Square. (GeekWire will be carrying Virgin’s streaming video of the “Business Is an Adventure” event, which has our chairman, Jonathan Sposato, on the panel.)

Baffled by Virgin America’s demise

The comments that got the most attention at today’s press conference came when I asked Branson to reflect on last week’s decision by Alaska Airlines to phase out Virgin America’s name and logo.

Months earlier, Alaska acquired Virgin America, which had an ownership structure that was separate from Virgin Atlantic. Branson basically had no say over the airline’s fate. Nevertheless, he took Alaska’s decision hard, and said so online last week in a “Dear Virgin America” farewell letter.

His comments were even sharper today at Sea-Tac.

“When I sat down with Alaska, I genuinely believed that they would treasure the brand, that they would treasure the people, that they would treasure the product, that they knew what they were buying,” Branson said. “They spent $2.6 billion buying it. And that the last thing they would do would be to rip the heart out of it. Which, effectively, seems to be what they decided to do. They got rid of a competitor, but they’re also getting rid of a lot of our staff.”

Branson said the decision was “baffling … and sad.”

“”I just wonder what it was that Alaska bought, and why did they bother?” he said. Then he smiled and added, “I thought I’d be polite, but I decided not to be.”

In response to a follow-up question, Branson said that Alaska Airlines was still on the hook for millions of dollars in payments to license the Virgin America name through 2040, even if the name is phased out in 2019 as planned.

The payments may be continuing in part to head off a scenario in which Branson starts up another Virgin America airline, as he had hinted he might do in an interview with Conde Nast Traveler just after the Alaska deal was announced.

Branson was repeatedly asked whether Virgin would be announcing any new initiatives in Seattle. He repeatedly demurred, other than to point out that Virgin Atlantic would be initiating still more new routes between U.S. cities and the British city of Manchester.

“We are not announcing anything else today,” he said.

Meanwhile, in New Zealand …

Branson came to Seattle not from London, but from New Zealand, where he sat in on a talk with former Prime Minister John Key at Auckland’s Vector Arena. During an interview with Newshub, Branson made news by calling President Donald Trump an embarrassment.

“I’ve found it rather an embarrassment for the world, I think, to have an individual running America who does not speak the truth all the time,” he said. “Who tries to, instead of trying to open borders to immigrants and welcome them in, as has happened in the past in America, has made it really difficult for anyone to get into America. And the list goes on and on and on.”

Branson said he would have preferred to see former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg get into the White House. But he said there’s been one saving grace to Trump’s performance so far.

“The first days in office have been, I think, so disastrous that I think the chances of it lasting more than one term is extremely unlikely,” Branson said.

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