BEN GURION AIRPORT — Sir Richard Branson’s Virgin Atlantic celebratory launch flight from London to Tel Aviv touched down at Ben Gurion Airport on Wednesday with a promise from the entrepreneur that the company was going to continue to expand to become “the most loved travel company.”
Flanked by Pini Shani, deputy director general of Israel’s Tourism Ministry, and Virgin Atlantic CEO Shai Weiss, an enthusiastic Branson recalled how he had founded Virgin Air 35 years ago, when the joke was that people wouldn’t fly with an airline called Virgin “because it wouldn’t go all the way!”
Immediately after landing at Ben Gurion Airport, Branson dramatically kissed the ground — apparently after being told by a local reporter that this was the custom upon arriving in the Holy Land.
According to Virgin’s COO Juha Jarvinen, the London-Tel Aviv route is a vital component of the company’s New York business. The 7 a.m. departure from Tel Aviv to London enables business users to do half a day’s work in London before transferring to the London to New York leg.
The new route has been flying since September 25 and, despite (or, perhaps because of) the Jewish High Holy Days, the carrier has already taken 14,000 passengers between Britain and Israel.
Shai Weiss said the company’s success was based on its attention to detail and its secret sauce, “its staff.” “We hire not just for aptitude but for attitude,” Weiss said.
Branson said that once Heathrow Airport’s third runway was built, he aimed to become Britain’s second flag carrier airline, in addition to British Airways. He and Weiss also announced that Virgin recently acquired the budget airline FlyBe, which will be renamed Virgin Connect, and enable passengers from provincial United Kingdom cities such as Glasgow, Manchester, and Leeds to link up with the London-Tel Aviv route.
— James J. Marlow (@James_J_Marlow) October 23, 2019
The Tourism Ministry’s Shani welcomed the celebratory Virgin flight and the intention to offer Virgin Holidays in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. He described the investment by Branson’s company as “a real vote of confidence in Israel.”
There will be holiday offers available at seven Tel Aviv hotels, from flagship veterans such as the Hilton to small boutique places like the Gilgal, with a similar variety in Jerusalem. Additionally there are plans to offer a new range of escorted tours aimed at first-time visitors, called “The Classic Israel,” which will introduce visitors to sites in Haifa as well as central Israel.
Branson, speaking at a press conference after the flight had landed, said that he was very open to pitches from Israeli startups for future tech cooperation. Weiss added that a number of Israel’s space industry leaders were due to see Branson during his brief stay in Israel.
AP and Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.