By Tim Moran, Editor in Chief, CMO.com
There was a time when air travel was fun and exciting, and not soul-crushing and mind-numbing, as it is so often today—at least for those of us who still fly coach. One of the big brand successes of those high-flying days was—and is—Richard Branson’s Virgin Atlantic. Sitting right next to Branson on the flight deck, so to speak, in the early days was David Tait, who is described by travelindustrytoday.com (for which he is a regular blogger) as “the quintessential ‘airline guy.’
- I thought [Richard Branson] seemed certifiably insane—he knew nothing about aviation—so, of course, I was immediately attracted to the project.
- We didn’t have any advertising budgets, so we had to create in-your-face, inventive, ballsy ways of getting the brand out there.
- If you spend all of your time judging yourself by how well you compare to your competition, then you’re never going to get any better.
As executive VP of Virgin Atlantic Airways, Tait set up, and then ran, the company’s hugely successful U.S. operation for almost 20 years. He also has had stints at Wardair, Laker Airways, Air Florida (pre-Virgin), and Air Canada (post).
CMO.com editor in chief Tim Moran was lucky enough to catch up with Tait—now the head of his own firm, Consultait—during one of his layovers to talk about those early days with Branson and what kind of marketing rules they broke—and profited from. Read on for a first-class tale from this aviation pioneer and raconteur. (Editor’s Note: Since the interview was done, Virgin America was acquired by Alaska Air Group.)
CMO.com: What areas do you focus on as managing partner of Consultait?
Tait: I always like to say I got into the airline business by mistake, rather than by design, but my current clients are almost exclusively aviation-related. They range from Stowe Aviation in Vermont, where they’re rebuilding the airport and putting a charter carrier together, to a startup in Canada that’s about to introduce that country’s first ultra-low-cost carrier.
My biggest project at the moment is with a new generation of what people insist on calling “airships.” Built by Lockheed Martin and a U.K. company, these huge, helium-filled Hybrid Aircraft have the ability to lift up to about 100 tons in cargo. The first ones will have only 20 tons of lift, but they can land on any flat surface, including sand ice and water. It’s all incredibly exciting.
CMO.com: So, still flight and aviation today—which brings us to the origins of Virgin Atlantic. Can we hear about that?
Tait: Sure. I had worked for a guy called Sir Freddie Laker. He started what was sort of the Southwest of the Atlantic. It was actually walk up and pay, with no reservations at the very beginning. But Laker Airways grew very quickly to being the fourth largest in terms of passenger carriers across the Atlantic. I ran the U.S. operation, and the airline was doing remarkably well until it was illegally driven out of business by its major competitors in 1982. But that’s another story.
In 1983 I was working for a consulting company in Miami, when I got a call from Freddie Laker saying, “I just spoke to a guy called Branson who is looking to start an airline. He called me to see who I knew in the U.S. that could maybe help him. So expect a call from him.”
I’d never heard of Richard Branson. I’d heard of Virgin Records because I had a couple of them. Anyway, I got the call from Branson and went over to see this strange, bearded, hippie-like guy who worked on a house boat in London and had this notion that he wanted to pick up where Freddie had left off. He had all kinds of weird and wonderful ideas. One of them was flying an all-business-class DC10 across the Atlantic. I thought the guy seemed certifiably insane—he knew nothing about aviation—so, of course, I was immediately attracted to the project.