In 2005, British billionaire Richard Branson came to America to launch a new airline for Americans, owned by Americans and controlled by Americans. At least that was the story he was selling.
First, you have to understand that under current U.S. law, foreign interests cannot own more than 25 percent of the voting stock or 49 percent of the equity in a U.S. carrier. To further ensure this is crystal clear, the law requires the "actual control" of the airline to be in the hands of U.S. citizens. This is no small matter not only for national security purposes, but also because of its impact on U.S. airlines, safety, jobs and the collective bargaining process.
But Sir Richard doesn't get involved in many things he can't control, so you can imagine our skepticism at the outset. You think he would have let someone else control the introduction of his self-proclaimed 'sexiest spaceship ever'--Virgin Galactic?
So I have a question: If Virgin America is independent of U.K.-based Virgin Group, why is the group's founder talking to Virgin America's flight attendants about the evils of unionizing?
Hold that thought, I'll get back to the video-taped evidence in a moment.
Since the end of 2005 when Virgin America first filed an application with the U.S. Department of Transportation to operate as a U.S airline, the Transportation Trades Department, AFL-CIO and others argued that Virgin America is controlled by foreign interests, which is counter to U.S. law.
But time and time again founder and Chairman of the Virgin Group Richard Branson, who is no stranger to arguing against U.S. ownership laws and regulations, was able to convince U.S. authorities that he was not controlling the airline and was, therefore, compliant with our laws. Eventually our regulators agreed.
Therefore, we find ourselves in a place where -- more than four years since it actually began flying in the fall of 2007 -- Virgin America is vying for highly sought-after slots at Washington Reagan National Airport. And while it battles it out for these slots with its competitors, its compliance with foreign ownership and control laws must again be scrutinized.
This time, it is not about speculation that at some point in the future Mr. Branson might play a role in controlling the operations of the airline. This time, there is a video produced by the Virgin Group and shown to Virgin America employees of the great founder taking the time out of his busy schedule (what, no space launch that day?) to speak to them about what is supposed to be their unfettered right to vote on unionization without employer interference.
In the video, he tells flight attendants of the consequences to the company of joining a union after the Transport Workers Union filed to represent these employees. Branson asks the employees of Virgin America, a carrier in which he has sworn no control in, to think about what is at stake for the company if the TWU is elected. He then urges them to protect their "independent spirit" by rejecting the TWU because the union will take their "uniqueness away." Actually, what is unique about these employees is that they have to sit at the table, on their own, and negotiate with a billionaire over wages and benefits without a union voice. That's a "uniqueness" I wouldn't cling to.
In telling Virgin America employees to "say no to the old way of flying and say no to the TWU," Sir Richard couldn't have been clearer -- he is at the helm making sure that his (sorry, I meant Virgin America's) employees remain non-union. Branson is taking Virgin America down this path, an airline he allegedly doesn't control. Odd.
And now Branson's airline has applied for two nonstop flights to San Francisco International from Reagan National. These slots are coveted by actual American-owned and controlled airlines because there are a limited number to go around from this popular stop near the nation's Capital.
It would appear that Mr. Branson is fond of making videos these days. In a Kobe Bryant ad for Nike, which features Branson and his business success, the video ends with this message: "Attack Fast. Attack Strong. Learn the System." It looks as though Mr. Branson and Virgin America, fully in compliance with our foreign control laws I'm sure, have learned our system well, and how to beat it.
Regulators take notice: Sir Richard is quite busy not controlling Virgin America.