If you’ve ever attended a funeral, you probably have a sense of how difficult it is to write a eulogy. It’s almost mind-boggling to sum up someone’s life in one brief speech. To do it in such a way that makes people laugh as well as cry is practically mission impossible.
Which is precisely why Sir Richard Branson’s eulogy for Virgin America is such a work of art.
The letter—which was published Thursday, the day after Alaska Airlines announced it would kill the domestic Virgin airline brand—is simultaneously sad and happy, nostalgic and forward looking, self-aggrandizing and self-deprecating. It quotes George Harrison. It nods at Oprah. It razzes shareholders for acting with their wallets and not their hearts. It makes a direct reference to Branson’s derriere.
Penned in Branson’s own voice (we’d like to think he wrote it without help from the PR team), the letter sums up many of Virgin’s successes over the years: the iconic safety video (which has spawned copycats from many competitors), the annual Chihuahua airlift day, purple mood lighting, and more.
The note also calls out some of the airline’s colossal failures: Like that 2008 publicity stunt when Branson said he “nearly ripped [his] arse” jumping off the side of The Palms in Las Vegas.
Finally, the eulogy spotlights some of the programs Virgin will emphasize next: a new hotel chain, a new cruise business, space tourism, and Virgin Sport, which captures the spirit of festival culture and applies it to fitness (along the lines of the recent kiteboarding challenge between Branson and former U.S. President Barack Obama).
Perhaps the most honest line of the entire piece comes about halfway through, in a section where Branson thanks his former employees for their dedication and hard work: “You proved that it is possible to create a business with a terrific culture and a brand that people love,” he writes.
Above all else, this culture is what we here at AFAR will remember most about Virgin America, too. Alaska won’t be able to maintain that culture perfectly, but we sure as hell hope it tries.
Matt Villano is a freelance writer and editor based in Healdsburg, California. In nearly 20 years as a full-time freelancer, he has covered travel for publications including TIME, the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times, Sunset, Backpacker, Entrepreneur, and more. He contributes to the Expedia Viewfinder blog and writes a monthly food column for Islands magazine. Villano also serves on the board of the Family Travel Association and blogs about family travel at Wandering Pod. Learn more about him at Whalehead.com.