Sir Richard Branson
BY ARI BURACK
Upstart airline Virgin America eased back the throttle on its inaugural flight today between San Francisco and Las Vegas with a lavish, zany bash featuring billionaire Sir Richard Branson, a bevy of minor celebrities, showgirls, champagne, a wedding couple and a lounge singer.
The San Francisco-based airline announced three daily flights between San Francisco International Airport and Las Vegas McCarran International Airport, offering $44 one-way regular fares and $149 first-class fares.
Photo by Bill Wilson
The elaborate and often comical event, befitting the two offbeat cities, played out this morning in SFO’s International Terminal as a beaming Branson descended from an escalator dressed in blue jeans and a black priest’s cassock, a large bejeweled silver cross dangling from his neck.
“Father” Richard, as airline CEO Fred Reid introduced him, was ordained as a Universal Life Church minister in order to perform a mid-air wedding ceremony for one of the airline’s employees on today’s first flight.
The 57-year-old founder of Virgin Group, and a minority investor in Virgin America, smiled and greeted onlookers warmly as San Francisco lounge singer Mr. Lucky crooned, “It’s Branson’s way!” to the tune of Frank Sinatra’s “My Way,” and Las Vegas showgirls in red posed in the background.
Other attendees included Carmen Electra and Kyla Ebbert, a young woman recently removed from a Southwest Airlines flight for an outfit the airline reportedly found too revealing.
“We promise you can come dressed like that anytime,” Branson told Ebbert. “By the way,” he added, resuming his priestly duties, “you are forgiven for it.”
“We do a lot of airline events, but none of them are like this,” SFO marketing manager Jane Sullivan laughed.
Still only about two months in the air, “Virgin is still a very young baby,” Branson said, “but I think it’s done fantastically well.”
The airline plans to add two more daily roundtrip flights beginning Nov. 4.
Of his visionary Virgin Galactic program to offer suborbital spacecraft flights to the public for $200,000 per person, Branson said today the project remains on track.
The program suffered a setback during a testing accident at its Mojave facility in July in which three employees died.
“It’s still just about 18 months from launch,” Branson said.
He added that the first flight will likely take off from the Mojave desert, carried up into the atmosphere from a mother ship he plans on naming “The Spirit of Steve Fossett,” after the explorer who went missing a month ago during a flight in Nevada.
“I’ll be going up on the first flight with my parents and my children,” an exuberant Branson said. “For some reason, my wife doesn’t want to go,” he grinned.
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Bill Wilson is a veteran freelance photographer whose work is published by San Francisco and East Bay media. Bill embraced photography at the age of eight. In recent years, his photos capture historic record of the San Francisco LGBT community in the Bay Area Reporter (BAR). Bill has contributed to the Sentinel for the past three years.
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