Friday 21 October 2016

Inside look at Richard Branson's airway never gets off the ground

Richard Branson turns up briefly in the fly-on-the-wall series Virgin Atlantic: Up in the Air
Richard Branson turns up briefly in the fly-on-the-wall series Virgin Atlantic: Up in the Air

VIRGIN Atlantic: Up in the Air, a new ITV three-parter starting tonight, marks the point at which the venerable fly-on-the-wall documentary format, which has been steadily losing altitude for years, finally crashes and burns in the all-consuming fire of self-regarding corporate video puffery.

It’s not quite as brain-numbingly tedious as last year’s pussyfoot RTE offering The Shelbourne (three hours spent staring

at flock wallpaper would be a considerably more thrilling experience), or as gutless

and insipid as BBC2’s The Bank: A Matter of Life and Debt, which crunches to an end tonight.

But if the sight of overwhelmingly blonde young white women squealing and crying with delight at the news that they’ve landed a job with the airline’s cabin crew on a miserable starting salary of £12,500 a year is your kind of thing, you’ve come to the right checkout desk. Please proceed to Gate 101.

We’re informed at the very start that Virgin is 30 years old this year and losing money; diplomatically, we’re not let in on just how much money is dribbling away.

It’s a still a small airline and some of its modest fleet of 38 planes, all of which have cute names like Tinkerbell and Molly, are showing their age. Molly has less computing power than your average smartphone. She’ll get you to New York in one piece all right, but she’s damn all use for streaming movies or playing Candy Crush.

Virgin’s founder, the eternally boyish Richard Branson, hasn’t been hands-on at the company for more than a decade and hasn’t set foot inside the HQ in three years.

He turns up briefly here, handing out 30th birthday party packs to staff, and shaking the hands and pecking the cheeks of employees who’ve been with the company almost as long as he has. Then he’s off again in his limo.

The cabin crew hopefuls, meanwhile, embark on a gruelling five-and-a-half-week training regime involving learning first aid, emergency procedures and how to deal with sick and/or belligerent passengers.

“We need to ‘Virginify’ you,” the course coordinator, the ominously-named Matt Whipp, tells the 148 candidates who’ve been plucked from 2,000 applicants.

We get to see only about five and a half minutes of this — presumably so as not to persuade would-be cabin crew staff to try joining the Royal Marines instead — which means there’s very little sense of jeopardy.

In fact, the only real spark of human drama in the whole laboured hour is generated by Katline, a 58-year-old grandmother who’s worked for years behind a desk in Virgin’s ticketing office but now wants to take to the skies in the coveted red uniform.

Does she make the grade? Of course she does! The moment when she tells her husband, “You’re married to a trolley dolly!” is a genuinely sweet one.

Katline’s maiden flight takes her to Dubai for nine weeks, all expenses paid by the company.

The rest of the time is spent following a designer as he noses around the airline industry’s equivalent of a giant Ikea store, selecting fixtures and fittings to furnish Virgin’s new $300 million Boeing 787 Dreamliner.

These include toilets with mood lighting and 138 “upper-class seats”, an expression that immediately conjures up an image of a seat with a top hat and monocle, clutching a brandy and a cigar in its armrests.

“This has Mick Jagger written all over it,” says someone as one of the seats is screwed into place. Thank God he wasn’t talking about the loo.

UTV/ITV/UTV Ireland, 9pm Tonight

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