At a time when rival airlines are pulling pillows and charging passengers for stale turkey wraps, Virgin Atlantic has poured money into upgrading the customer experience in the air and on the ground. In 2000, the company invested $68 million for brand new, fold-down leather seats in first class (or in Virginese, “Upper Class”) only to scrap them three years later for an even better model. The cost the second time around? A cool $132 million (and yes, they’re already starting on the third). The spending spree didn’t stop there. Complimentary limos now chauffeur Upper Class jet-setters to and from the airport. The airline tore apart its flagship Heathrow clubhouse this year–just five years after its last renovation–doubling its size and adding a sushi bar and Bumble and Bumble hair salon.
And what about us plebes in the cheap seats? In early 2004, Virgin revamped its entertainment systems, adding larger-screen, remote-control-capable TVs and the ability to text-message other passengers. Customers are responding. In the past year–a catastrophic time for other carriers–Virgin says U.S.-originating travel took off, soaring 25%; business travel did even better, growing 26% from the year before. Luring more passengers, of course, helps bring more profits: Fiscal 2004 earnings were $120 million, more than triple the previous 10-month fiscal year’s.