I thought ‘Christ, the whole lot is going to come crashing down’

“It was a horrible, horrible time. But from our point of view, Virgin has come out, if you look at it, our brand is now stronger than it was in 2019.”

Branson has made little secret of his opposition to Brexit. He has branded it a “multi-generational disaster” in the past. He refrains, however, from saying the UK’s current cost-of-living crisis – with soaring inflation outstripping countries on the Continent – is an ‘I told you so’ moment.

“I’ve made my position clear that I believe that the UK will suffer for not being part of Europe,” he says.

“I still believe that to be the case, we’ll just let history decide whether that is the case or not.”

At an event in downtown Austin a day after our interview, he cannot stop himself having a pop at ministers over the impending industrial action on Britain’s railways.

After being at the vanguard of privatisation, Virgin ran its last rail service in December 2019 after its bid to run the west coast line was deemed to have breached tendering rules.

“We transformed the British rail network, the staff had loved working for Virgin,” he says, shortly after kissing the shoe of a British journalist whose bag Virgin Atlantic had lost on the inaugural flight. “I notice the staff are on the verge of having a strike… That wouldn’t have happened when Virgin was running it.”

These days, Branson is arguably most outspoken about the Russia war against Ukraine.

Earlier this month he attacked French president Emmanuel Macron for calling not to humiliate Russia. Branson hit back, branding the remarks “insensitive and wrong” on Twitter.

“I was critical of the word he [Macron] used,” he says. “I was definitely surprised that he used that word because, you know, because I think when you’re in such a war situation, it’s got to be everything’s got to be very clear.

“If you go back to the Second World War, if he’d been living in London, as De Gaulle, he was black and white: he wanted the Germans out of France. And I think it should be black and white until the Ukrainians decide differently.

“What Putin has brought upon the world is unforgivable. It’s not just Ukraine that’s at risk. It’s Poland, there’s so many potential countries that could be at risk if we don’t stand firm.”

Branson says he is in regular contact with Ukraine president Volodymyr Zelensky.

He had hoped that the ‘The Elders’, a non-governmental organization founded by Nelson Mandela and funded by Branson, could have prevented hostilities breaking out in the first place.

“I spoke with him [Zelensky] before the invasion on a couple of occasions because we have an organization called The Elders that attempts to stop conflicts.

“And I was just trying to see if there’s, if there was anything we could do to try to help sort of bridge the gap between Ukraine and Russia.

“I spoke with him the day after the invasion. He contacted us about whether we would consider – I think at that stage he did not believe that Putin was going to go as far as he was – he wanted to know if we could throw a concert in the Donbas region. And we are now looking at doing something in Poland.”

Ukraine aside, Branson is evidently in a better place and determined to put a difficult couple of years behind him.

“It’s one of the most satisfying moments of my life, having the team [at Virgin Atlantic] confound everybody,” he says.

That Virgin Atlantic, the cornerstone of Branson’s empire, is even still flying at all is something to be proud of, he suggests. Well-known brands such as Pan-Am, Trans World Airlines and British Caledonian have fallen by the wayside since the first flight took off from Gatwick all those years ago.

“If I go back 38 years to the inaugural flight of Virgin Atlantic and I just remember sitting there looking around the cabin, with my wife and my daughter Holly sitting on my lap. And thinking: ‘Can this airline in 20 or 30 years time be as special as it is today?’

“Every flight is just about as good as it was on that very first flight.”

“Yes, Virgin Atlantic and myself, we all got attacked. But we’ve all come out really really strong.”

“I think we proved any critics wrong,” he says, fixing his gaze again. Then he smiles.

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