Virgin's Richard Branson Circles His Wagons

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Photograph by Sarah Wilson for TIME

Jet set Branson and his CEOs from Virgin Blue, Virgin Atlantic and Virgin America

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On the service front, Virgin America is sending all its employees through a two-day Refresh course every year. Characterized as a "brand bath," Refresh reinforces the company's service standards but also teaches employees about passengers' emotional triggers and how to react appropriately. (Virgin Atlantic and V Australia have similar programs.) The aim at Virgin, as at most other great service companies, is to equip employees to take the initiative to satisfy customers, going beyond corporate guidelines if necessary.

And that, says Virgin, is how it will beat the biggies. "The key is that people want to fly us, and not because they have to," says David Cush, the CEO of Virgin America and an American Airlines alum. "Anybody can buy a plane and buy what we have on the inside. But what they can't do is reinvent or re-create our culture."

The question then becomes, How far can the Virgin brand carry Virgin the airline? "The brand will go only so far," says Dean Crutchfield, the chief engagement officer at Method, a marketing agency in New York City. "But they can go a long way if they maintain who they are as opposed to what they are."

And who they are is Branson and crew — cheeky, creative and combatively competitive — in squadron formation.

Virgin Territory
Three companies, six airlines, on three continents. Is that enough to fight the competition?

Virgin Atlantic
Fleet size: 38
Ownership: Virgin Group 51%, Singapore Airlines 49%
Passengers in 2009: 5.4 million
Revenue: $3.66 billion*
Profit: $205 million operating loss*
*FY2010, ending Feb. 28, 2010

Virgin America
Fleet size:
Ownership: VAI Partners 75% (includes Cyrus Capital, VX Employee Holdings and VAI management and board members), Virgin Group 24.9%
Passengers in 2009: 3.7 million
Revenue: $548 million*
Profit: $48 million operating loss*
*FY2009, ending Dec. 31, 2009

Virgin Blue
Fleet size: 88
Ownership: public
Stock price: $0.31 (ASX: VBA)
Passengers in 2009: 17.5 million
Revenue: $2.65 billion*
 $18.9 million*
*FY2010, ending June 30, 2010

This article originally appears in the September 13, 2010 issue of TIME Europe magazine.

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