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March 4 2008: 5:13 PM EST
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Branson: 'There aren't very many virgins left...'

The insouciant CEO did intend to shock, but in reality he was just bragging about his brand, which he's now applying to Virgin Charter, an Internet company for arranging private jet trips.

By David Kirkpatrick, senior editor

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Richard Branson says he rarely uses the Web - but Virgin's latest business will be based on the Internet.

NEW YORK (Fortune) -- The delightful Richard Branson proves yet again that you don't have to toe the line in order to be a successful businessperson. In launching another intriguing business, this time to make private aircraft charters easier to arrange, he cannot avoid the temptation for endless quips, even right off a long flight from India - a charter of course.

Virgin's (VMED, Fortune 500) Branson, as overly attentive readers of Fortune and this column may recall, was the subject of "Rich geeks in paradise," possibly the most-read story I've ever written. It told how, late in 2006, he hosted a gaggle of dotcom youngsters at his fabulously-located and provisioned Necker Island in the British Virgins.

He hosted the event to get a bit of education in the Internet's virtues from the whippersnappers. Branson claims he rarely uses the Web. "I have some delightful secretaries who will do it for me, basically," he says. But perhaps some of his Necker Island tutelage took hold.

With Virgin Charter, which launches Tuesday, he has teamed up with a savvy Net veteran to bring transparency and openness to what has been a very opaque industry - chartering private planes on a per-trip basis.

The idea, in effect, is to make available to the merely rich what has heretofore been a luxury for only the super-rich. It's one of a number of recent efforts to make it easier to use private planes. Fractional ownership services like NetJets and Flight Options have been around a long time, and now we're seeing short-haul regional reservation services using newer small jets like DayJet.

Virgin Charter CEO Scott Duffy is a 10-year new media veteran who was seeking a new entrepreneurial challenge. Says Branson: "He came to us with this idea and out of my personal frustration it just sort of hit me in the eyes." This becomes roughly his 300th Virgin company. In India this week, he launched a local version of Virgin Mobile. But Branson's touch is not always magic. For every smash like Virgin Atlantic airlines there are a few failures, like Virgin Vodka, which failed, Virgin Cola - withdrawn from the U.S. market shortly after its 2005 launch, or Virgin Cinemas - sold after a slow start. (For a great profile of Branson, see my colleague Betsy Morris' story of a few years back.)

Branson says he has had difficulties finding well-priced and well-run charters for his own use. He travels constantly and doesn't own a private plane himself (though the Virgin Group does operate five different Virgin-branded airlines around the world). He says on one recent charter trip the crew left a carafe of water near his seat. He was trying to sleep when the plane took off and the bottle fell on his head, soaking him.

Virgin Charter works in two ways. You can describe in detail your needs for a trip - date, embarkation and destination points, special requests, etc. - and jet owners and managers will bid to meet your requirements. Virgin Charter has 1,000 planes available immediately through its partners - "from turboprops to jumbo jets," says Duffy. These planes are mostly operated by charter services, which themselves frequently get them from private owners who are not currently flying. Each plane has been inspected and individually rated for safety by Virgin. Renters can rate the planes and operators can - in turn - rate the renters (to help future charter operators decide how good a deal to offer that person).

Duffy says Virgin Charter offers "a simple interface like Expedia, bargaining for the best price like Priceline, and user feedback like eBay. For the first time we will aggregate in one place all the data - about operators, safety, quality and price."

The company also offers another way to fly - bidding on otherwise "empty legs," the trips required to get planes and crews back to home base or out to a client. Branson and Duffy claim 40-50% of all private jets in the air are flying empty. Branson attempts to make the argument that by filling these flights with paying customers Virgin Charter is thus a green business. Yeah, making it easier for rich people to avoid flying commercial is very green. My credulity only goes so far.

For these otherwise empty flights, you can make any reasonable bid. Duffy claims trips as inexpensive as $600 for a plane from Las Vegas to Los Angeles could be commonplace on Virgin Charter. Perhaps occasionally Virgin Charter will make private flying available even to the merely well-off (if they're not concerned about their carbon footprint).

This is very different from conventional charters, typically arranged by brokers who may charge a 25% fee, whose prices are hard to obtain and compare to others. It also is unlike fractional ownership businesses such as NetJets that require multi-hundred-thousand-dollar payments up front for the right to use planes. (You can also pay many tens of thousands - its Web site doesn't say how much - for a per-use jet card from Marquis Jet, which uses NetJets planes.) Virgin Charter is also unlike regional small-jet companies like DayJet because it will function for any kind of plane between any two destinations.

Virgin Charter will charge passengers a small fee to use its site. And it will charge operators fees in the 5-10% range, according to one I spoke with.

OK, sorry for dwelling too long on the details of Virgin Charter. It's more fun to hear Branson talk about it. "There aren't many virgins left," he says, meaning that there are very few brands that can be successfully applied to so many businesses. "I hasten to add that our virgins go all the way," he says, instructing me to "make sure you get that down." He's referring, he makes clear, to the planes. Then he makes a very bad joke he's probably used before: "You'll be virgin on the ridiculous not to use this site."

Branson turns to Duffy toward the end of our joint interview, and asks about the planes, with seeming seriousness: "Do they have curtains? What if you want to join the mile high club?" To top of page

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