Secret of Success: People Like Quality

Most airlines are in the doghouse these days, with losses mounting along with the woes of the global economic troubles. Not Virgin.

"I've been involved in ... Virgin Atlantic, Virgin Blue in Australia, Virgin America, stakes in Air Asia and one or two other airlines," Branson says. "I think that Virgin has made good money out of the airline business by creating the best airline where it flies."

Award-winning Virgin Atlantic, which has been aloft for 25 years, and Singapore Airlines generally battle it out for the top spot, Branson says: "I think that if you create a really good quality airline, you can make good money. People seek out quality. When set up the airline business 25 years ago, I jokingly said that I hear the best way of becoming a millionaire is to start off as a billionaire and go into the airline business. And I'd just sold my record company for a billion and was slightly nervous that could come true. But as it turned out, we have done very well and people like flying it."

The secret is making sure you get every little thing right, he explains. "A good hotel, a good restaurant, a good club is generally run by the owner and they get every detail right. When you get every detail right the staff will be proud of it. They'll smile, and if the staff is smiling, the customers will smile. We've always tried to surprise people and be a class above what they expect, and it's worked for us. We always make sure we have the youngest fleet of planes in the world."

There had been rumors that Branson was eyeing El Al. They were wrong, it seems. "I think we're always happy to talk," Branson says courteously. "But I think that, generally speaking, Virgin prefers to start companies from scratch, rather than to buy into established companies."

That naturally doesn't apply to another British airline, BMI. Unlike El Al, it has something to offer that Virgin doesn't have and would like to have. "We don't have a short-haul airline out of the U.K. We're just long-haul, and BMI is a short-haul airline. That would be of interest to Virgin Atlantic because it would give it feed, whereas something like El Al doesn't really add anything to what we're really doing," he says.