There must have been moments in the next few years—particularly after Iraq invaded Kuwait in 1990—when Branson himself wondered why he had ever gone into the airline business. Economies everywhere were foundering, the price of airline fuel had more than doubled, and potential passengers were staying home, fearful of terrorist attacks. In 1991 British Airways had secretly launched a campaign to drive Branson out of the business. British Airways employees gained access to Virgin Atlantic computer data and also attempted to poach Virgin passengers by calling them at home and offering inducements to fly BA instead. A British Airways flack spread rumors discrediting Branson and the airline to the press, including a phony report that Virgin could no longer get credit to pay for fuel. "BA was utterly determined to get rid of us," Branson says. "They were ruthless."
By 1992, with his financial problems worsening and his bankers at Lloyd's getting anxious, Branson was forced to make the most wrenching choice of his life. The music business had made Virgin, but he had come to feel almost fatherly toward his airline. "It was the baby under attack," Branson says. "I had been nurturing and treasuring her, trying to make sure she survived."
So he sold his Virgin Music Group to Thorn-EMI for nearly $1 billion, of which he pocketed $500 million, in March 1992. Branson still gets emotional when he recalls meeting with the Virgin Music people to tell them the news. Afterward he bolted from the room and raced up Ladbroke Grove. "I was running down the street," he says, "tears streaming down my face. If anybody could have had a picture of that—this poor boy, crying, who'd just sold a company for a billion dollars...."
Wildly cash-rich, that poor boy used a considerable part of his new fortune to pay off the bankers and ended up owning the most innovative of carriers outright. Virgin now offers all passengers seat-back videos, free headsets and toiletry kits. And brandy on the house served after dinner. But it is the airline's Upper Class offerings, at Business Class rates, that have made it so popular: full-sleeper seats, stand-up bars, masseuses and manicurists. And free limousine service to and from the airport. Branson sued BA for libel and ultimately won a settlement, in January 1993, under which BA agreed to pay $170,000 to the airline and $775,000 to Branson. He was portrayed in public as the giant-killer, and he and Virgin at once became objects of national sympathy. A friend of Branson's with royal connections sent him a congratulatory telegram: "Dear Richard, Hurrah! Diana."
It is certainly no mystery, given the frantic pace of his life, why Branson threw so much of himself into developing Necker as a retreat—his sanctuary far from bankers and spreadsheets. Nor is it any wonder that he was so taken with ballooning. Not only do his sporting adventures generate millions in free publicity for Virgin, but he had found, in recreational ballooning, an escape quite as satisfying as a weekend snorkeling among the rays off Necker.
Notwithstanding the horrors of that final desperate hour floating alone above the Irish Sea, Branson came back for more in early 1991 when he and Lindstrand became the first to fly a hot-air balloon over the Pacific Ocean—a 6,761-mile journey in the jet stream, from Japan to Canada, at speeds up to 240 mph.
For hours during the first day of their flight, they feared they were doomed. While attempting to jettison an empty fuel tank, they lost two of their full tanks. This sudden weight loss caused them to immediately lurch upward dramatically, and they quickly reached 42,500 feet, an altitude at which the glass dome of their capsule was in danger of exploding. The balloon eventually stabilized, and they made great time crossing the Pacific.
They were hoping to land in Los Angeles. "We missed by 2,000 miles," Branson says. "We came down in the Canadian Rockies, in the Northwest Territories. We came into an Arctic blizzard. The burners were lighting the snow, and the snow formed lovely crystals all around. I stood on top of our capsule and saw miles of trees and, suddenly, an opening that was a lake. I climbed back inside and strapped myself in. We hit the lake and blew the bolts, releasing the balloon, and I could see it disappearing off into the trees, and there we were, 300 miles from the nearest house. We had made it! The only thing that saw us land was this otter. He came up to the capsule, gave us a sniff and waddled off."
A damned banker, no doubt.
Once again, Branson had risked it all and somehow survived. Today, eight years later, he seems quite as willing and impatient as ever to put himself in some kind of peril, as though feeling that a life not lived on the edge is not worth living. Within the last year, most prominently in the Financial Times of London, there have been warnings that Branson is again expanding his empire too aggressively, leaving Virgin vulnerable to the same kind of recessionary cycle that forced him, seven years ago, to sell a healthy company in order to rescue an ailing one. But Branson only knows one way—upward. In late December, in his fourth attempt to circumnavigate the globe in a hot-air balloon, he, Lindstrand and American businessman and adventurer Steve Fossett lifted off from Marrakech. After crossing Asia Minor, Asia and half of the Pacific, Branson and crew were forced down by hurricane winds near Hawaii.