• Former BA boss Willie Walsh bet Sir Richard in 2012 his airline would fold
  • It's a bet that he has comprehensively lost...
  • Sir Richard waded into the pool at his Vegas hotel as Virgin Atlantic turned 40
  • Once he'd dried off, we chatted to him and Virgin Atlantic CEO Shai Weiss 
  • READ MORE: The pictures taken by a photographer who hangs out of helicopters

In 2012, former British Airways boss Willie Walsh famously bet Sir Richard Branson that his airline – Virgin Atlantic – wouldn’t exist in five years’ time.

It’s a bet that Mr Walsh has comprehensively lost, with MailOnline watching on this week as Sir Richard waded fully clothed into the pool at his Las Vegas hotel (see video) in celebration of Virgin Atlantic’s 40th birthday.

Once he’d dried off, we sat down with the famously clever founder and the airline’s CEO, Shai Weiss, to discuss the airline’s 'secret sauce', its most remarkable moments and more…

Throughout the interview, one thing was clear: it's Virgin's swagger, lack of fear and mission for change that's carried the airline this far.

One of the most profound, Branson recalled, started with a simple change.

Change, please

MailOnline asked Sir Richard for his favourite ‘left field’ or unsuspecting airline decision that has had a profound impact over the past 40 years.

Simplicity can be brilliant.

Sir Richard said: ‘I'd always come home from trips and put my change in a drawer, to which my wife one day said, “Why don't you do something with all that change, why don't you donate it to someone?”’

From this simple married person's exchange at home, an idea was born and Virgin Atlantic launched arguably the world's first airline appeal for change at the end of each flight from passengers, resulting in over £1million ($1.2million) in donations in the first year.

From there, many airlines, including BA, followed and now countless millions are donated globally by airlines annually to charity appeals.

Saddam Hussein and the most remarkable Virgin flying moment

When pressed on the most remarkable moments in the airline’s history, there were many involving normal passengers, yet it was the airline's ability to help people and governments that stood out.

Branson recalled being moved by the hostage situation in Iraq in 1990 and immediately feeling a duty to help.

He drafted a letter, he admitted ‘cheekily’, to Iraqi ruler Saddam Hussein asking for the release of foreign hostages who were young or unwell.

To his surprise, Saddam Hussein accepted, after Sir Richard offered medical supplies for the Iraqi people as an exchange gesture of goodwill.

Branson got on the phone to Ted Heath, a former prime minister to secure the deal in person on the ground.

Virgin Atlantic, with Sir Richard on board, flew an all-volunteer mission from Gatwick to Baghdad, an airport virtually abandoned for over two years and full of challenges.

Branson spoke of the fear on arrival, knowing it could all go so wrong, particularly as hordes of soldiers marched onto the tarmac.

Like a real-life scene out of Hollywood film, Argo, Sir Richard recalls vividly the mix of jubilation from the rescue and the sombre feeling when reflecting on those left behind.

The feeling of immense joy as the hostages cleared Iraqi airspace is one the mogul says will always be top of mind.

The Virgin Atlantic ‘secret sauce’

‘We partner extremely well,’ said Weiss.

I'd pitched a difficult question of how Virgin Atlantic can hold on to a differentiated advantage in an increasingly data driven airline world, and both Weiss and Branson remained un-phased.

Weiss pointed to the success of the airline's partnership with U.S-based Delta Air Lines as a pivotal moment for the airline.

Business in the U.S is set to reach an all-time high, as Delta customers embrace the Virgin Atlantic way, leading to over 40 per cent of traffic coming from U.S customers.

At a press conference in Las Vegas, Virgin announced a brand-new route to Toronto in collaboration with partner WestJet, a case in point to the partner thinking.

‘We've always been nimble,’ said Sir Richard, as he joked with Weiss that they simply make decisions and the team makes it so… just like that.

Weiss, highly amused, revealed that whether it be changing an iconic red uniform or adding an amenity to the service, the reply is often simply ‘sure, Richard’.

‘It’s that easy,’ he added.

Both agree that the airline's ability to simply try things and innovate is a huge differentiator.

On this subject, Sir Richard couldn’t resist a subtle dig at British Airways.

‘They don't have hotels, or cruise ships, or spaceships,’ he said with glee.

Loyalty is the bright red future for Virgin

Both Weiss and Branson look on with intent and focus as we dive into the future.

No one thought the airline would last 40 years, so what's next?

Virgin Red, the loyalty program connecting the ability to earn and redeem points across all Virgin brands and experiences is a core focus for both.

Sir Richard said, if you stay at the hotels enough, fly enough, cruise enough and live enough, you might get enough points to fly to space on a Virgin Galactic spaceship.

This is a man who has turned sky-high thinking into businesses in orbit.

And you'd be a fool to bet against another successful 40 years for Virgin Atlantic.

Gilbert Ott is Founder of travel site He can be found tweeting at @godsavethepoint.

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