Interview - Brett Godfrey

Interview: Brett Godfrey, Virgin Blue CEO

ABC Australian Story - 3rd August 2000
(Credit: Australian Broadcasting Corporation)

Like A Virgin
Producer: Claire Forster
Researcher: Tanya Sakzewski

Hello I’m Claire Forster and I’m one of the producers working behind the scenes on Australian Story. When Richard Branson’s Virgin group announced plans to start a new Australian Airline it sparked intense public interest. Shortly after the Virgin announcement another airline, Impulse announced its intention to upgrade its operations and the scene was seemingly set for a new era of competition and cheaper airfares. Numerous media outlets, us included, approached Virgin for access to go behind the scenes. Branson has never been publicity shy but for the record key people in his group argued against allowing the cameras inside. In the end we were given the go ahead and even when things started to go wrong Australian CEO Brett Godfrey and his locally recruited team stuck to their word and allowed us to keep filming. This is their story.

AMANDA BOLGER, Media Manager: It’s just a roller coaster ride. I mean one minute Richard’s out here and everything’s fantastic and we’re all hugging each other going isn’t this what we’ve been working towards isn’t it great. And then we all come crushing back down because there’s issues and you just it really is a roller coaster ride. And everyday you wake up and just think Oh my gosh what’s going to happen today. You don’t build up an airline on fun and games. You just can’t.

BRETT GODFREY, CEO: It’s day by day from here in we’ve got a fairly tight schedule, which we’ve brought on ourselves. A slight spanner in the works I’m still trying to get to the bottom of it I’m waiting on some calls back from CASA, which I hope, to this afternoon. So my people are starting to think about what will happen if for instance we don’t get over this hurdle and it gets too close.

SIR RICHARD BRANSON, Group Chairman: One day we were flying between London and Brussels on a Virgin express plane. Brett was on board and there were a couple of Australian pilots in the cockpit and they were desperately wanting to come home to fly in their own country.

BRETT GODFREY: He was sitting in the cockpit as he often does just chatting away with the crews and said "it’s making a huge mistake by not setting up Virgin in Australia and because of the high airfares and Qantas" and that was like a red rag to a bull to Richard.

RICHARD BRANSON: If we hadn’t been on that particular flight at that particular time Virgin Blue would never have existed.

BRETT GODFREY: We had a particularly tough time at Express over the last eighteen months and that’s where I sort of came to his attention and I guess I did okay and for that reason I got entrusted with this which is in reality it’s probably the biggest risk the group has ever taken.

RICHARD BRANSON: Well Brett is and was an Aussie. He was the Finance Director of our European airline. We had bought an airline rather than started it from scratch. And this one person at that airline that I found after a while I could turn to get things sorted out and that was Brett. He basically saved the situation on many many an occasion. And so when one day he said he wanted to get back to Australia I owed him a big favour.

BRETT GODFREY: We actually started to set up the office here in Brisbane. For the first week we didn’t have any furniture we sat on the floor. It looked like a kid’s camp out as opposed to a Business Meeting of people we were trying to set up like a third or a fourth domestic airline.

March – cabin crew recruitment

AMANDA BOLGER: The whole recruitment process does look a lot of fun and part of it is to attract people that have got that sense of fun and that sense of Virgin flair.

BRETT GODFREY: And they’ve come because they’ve wanted to work in a company that’s a little bit different.

AMANDA BOLGER: Once they get past that level it’s much more serious and our Head of Cabin Crew actually interviews every single person.

Next Day - Second Round Interviews

RECRUITMENT OFFICER: First of all I want to say congratulations because you’ve all got through to the next round.

March Staff Meeting to discuss airline name

BRETT GODFREY: When you think about it an airline starts as a business plan or a concept. We started to do a checklist, which there were some 42 odd pages long. We just couldn’t do it. We had boards over here where we started to list everything and we ran into pages and pages from like how you refill an oxygen cylinder to, how you finance an aeroplane to, do we need a spare engine. Well we probably do because we’ve got no friends in this particular part of the world who are likely to help us, unlike Europe.

June - London
"Foreign Correspondent"

RICHARD BRANSON: Virgin Blue has been fun as a launch I just wonder as a long term name whether Jet Blue would be better than Virgin Blue.

Colleague: Well you’ve already got a company called Jet Blue.

BRETT GODFREY: I came here thinking I knew a bit about the airline business. Well starting now from scratch I realised how little I did know and it’s only because as I’ve said that the team I’ve got around me that we’ve managed to get this far.

The uniforms I thought I had an idea on the uniforms and that went out the window because clearly I’m not a style merchant.

AMANDA BOLGER: We’ve all got to have our opinion. We’ve got to have our say. There’s not many organisations that you can just do that with. We sat through a couple and you just had to look at everyone’s face to sort of know no that’s not we want or we’d screw our noses up ever so discreetly.

And then Marks came on and well they completely blew me away. I thought they look fantastic.

BRETT GODFREY: Our uniforms even though they look great, they’ve been done with a real budget in mind and we got them for under about five hundred dollars a uniform and that is incredible.

Low fare airlines have to have low costs and the concern is that if you get prices so low you must be cutting corners somewhere. Well that’s true. We do cut corners somewhere so right across the board even our management team. The salaries that we’re paying ourselves are by far much less than what’s the norm today.

A ticket to produce is about $23.00 so we cut that out we’re absolutely ticketless. You get basically a receipt. We’ve got no fancy lounges, we don’t have frequent flyer points. Where we can’t cut corners we have to have a strong maintenance facility and strong maintenance procedures. We can’t skimp on pilots. We bought back a bunch of the blokes who flew in the late eighties when there was this big strike.

File Footage
The Prime Minister had to run the gauntlet of out of work pilots.

JOHN RABY, Chief Pilot: I was overseas for nearly ten years. It’s nice, it’s interesting but it’s never like home.

June - Flight simulator - pilot training

JOHN RABY: I’m the Flight Operations Manager, which in probably layman’s terms is the Chief pilot. As a pilot when you join an airline the first thing you would expect is that you’d be presented with a group of manuals and you’d go away and study those. Here it’s been "oh, okay sit down and write the manuals."

Three thousand odd applications we had from pilots at all sorts of levels. I think the experience of the two Compass start-ups has caused some pilots to take a wait and see attitude as it were.

PETER HARBISON, Aviation Analyst: Both of those other two carriers were technically bankrupt shortly after they started off on it. Virgin is going to be supported as I understand it by Branson’s own pocket if necessary for perhaps three years and that’s the big difference. And he’s talked in terms of I think forty million dollars a year to keep it flying.

25 June - "Business Sunday" : Channel Nine

REPORTER: ... because as late as 30th May CASA said that things were not going well and that the manual was not up to standard and that your start up schedule was not accepted.

RICHARD BRANSON: Nothing has been as far as I’m concerned has been untoward. We’ve always said that we’ll be up and running before the Olympics.

REPORTER: The feeling is that no one has been driving the setup in Australia. Are you coming out to fix the problems?

RICHARD BRANSON: I think it’s very sad that you’ve come all this way down to look for negative questions if I may say. Brett Godfrey is a very able person.

RICHARD BRANSON: The thing that broke the camels back was when they asked me the question "I hear you’re coming down to Australia to get rid of your Chief Executive". And I just wasn’t going I didn’t want to carry on and doing the interview with sort of unpleasant and naive, evil questions being asked like that.

25 June - "Business Sunday" : Channel Nine (continues)

REPORTER: Well can I ask you how long you plan to keep Brett Godfrey in place?

RICHARD BRANSON: Oh, just forget it.

AMANDA BOLGER: He just reacted. I mean I have to say I sat there thinking Oh my gosh and while from a PR perspective, it might not have necessarily been a good move to get up and walk out of an interview, all I can say I’m really proud to work for a boss who will get up, and feels that strongly and that passionately about his team, that he will get up and to hell with the consequences and to hell with the interview.

5th July – cabin crew graduation

EFFIE WELLER, Flight Attendant: The whole group was really fantastic. We bonded really well. We’re looking forward to the start up date. To us it’s overwhelming had a few tears in there because it was just really good.

RICHARD BRANSON: Starting an airline is not easy. I mean you’ve got to find the planes and in our case Brett’s bought ten brand new 737s.

BRETT GODFREY: The aeroplanes, the value of those aeroplanes that we’re bringing in, starting next year starting $540 million. It is high profile. It’s also the biggest single risk we’ve undertaken. This is 100% Richard all within the Group and from that point of view, yeah he’s taken a gamble, I hope I don’t prove him wrong.

JOHN RABY, Chief Pilot: We realised that our people would need some practical training. So we decided to run a series of private flights. So in a way we’re running probably the biggest business jet in Australia right now. But of course you know that’s a very expensive exercise and it can’t go on for very much longer.

Training Session

Trainer: Tell me how long did it take to board 110 passengers?

Reply: A long time.

Trainer: It took us 22 minutes I was timing you. 22 minutes to board 110 passengers, there’s no way we can do that.

PETER HARBISON, Aviation Analyst: I think it’s a very good thing that the decision was made to start Virgin rolling last year because I think you if you came into the market today and said what’s the best place to make money in Australia it wouldn’t be by starting up an airline. But already this thing’s got so much momentum and Branson to his credit is so committed to it that it’s obviously going to fly and it’s going to stay in the air for some time even if he has to dig very deep into his pocket.

BRETT GODFREY: Basically nine out of ten or eight out of ten of the senior management team are Australian. And at the end of the day we one day plan to I guess to remove the risk of the airline and Richard’s made it plenty clear that he’d like to float it some day in Australia when that risk has been removed.

9th July - start of pre launch events

PETER HARBISON: I think one of the reasons why aviation’s such a quite profile industry is because it comes along with this incredible mix of business, of politics and that largely of emotion, is usually the magic carpet to go somewhere on holiday. For the employees often prepared to work for considerably less than they would work in most other industries, it’s often a crusade.

AMANDA BOLGER: The aircraft taking off was just the best feeling and you could see the look on everyone’s face the excitement, the pure adrenalin going through everyone.

Channel 7 News footage
The mystery destination was Maroochydore. Its runway short, the landing incredibly hard.

JOHN RABY, Chief Pilot: Without labouring the point my landing wasn’t the best I’ve done.

Channel 7 News footage
Once on the ground there was the problem of getting onto the ground. No Virgin stairs. Ansett Airlines came to the party, providing its stairs.

AMANDA BOLGER, Media Manager: One little thing goes wrong and it sort of sets off another couple of things. And yeah there were moments all along where we just thought God I hope we can just all pull this together in time. I don’t think I’ve ever worked so hard in my life. I don’t think I’ve ever seen so many people work so hard in their lives. And to see it all come together today was just the most amazing feeling.

Tonight is just going to be the night. Everyone’s been looking forward to it for so long and we just hope that everyone has a great time and just really goes off like a frog in a sock.

RICHARD BRANSON: You’ve got to lead from the top. If I’m going about partying, if I’m having a good time, if I’m letting my hair down then everybody else can let their hair down and have a good time.

RICHARD BRANSON: I’ve got to know Brett over the last few years and I can’t think of anybody in the world I trust more. Anyway if it wasn’t for him none of us would be here tonight. So I’d like us all to give a round of applause to Brett.

ABC Radio "AM"
Sir Richard, who’s known for his flamboyance is certainly trying to make sure no one misses Virgin’s arrival on the domestic scene. The actions of one Virgin staff member show his excitement is catching. Upon hearing the 737 was too high above Noosa to see any nude sunbathers the female staffer flashed her breasts to the pilots.

JOHN RABY, Chief Pilot: I was actually flying the aeroplane so my concentration was on other things but Amanda apparently showed a little bit of midriff. I believe your camera crew were actually standing behind.

News Broadcast
We can nonetheless appreciate that Sir Richard would call his company Virgin in preference to slut. He’ll have to watch it though.

AMANDA BOLGER: Considering it was completely inaccurate and the insinuation and I think the way he described it and a particular word that was used really hurt.

11th July - Sydney-Melbourne flight

BRETT GODFREY: When we get off the plane in Melbourne in about 15 minutes we’re going to announce something that I wasn’t sure we were going to announce. The CEO’s always the last to know that Richard had an interview this morning with a radio and he said that we are starting up our Brisbane to Melbourne service 1st of October and he’s decided that he’s going to give those seats away at $99.00 as well. And I must admit I had to pick myself off the floor. I tell you I’m going to have to go back and look at my business plan again and see how long we can give those fares away for that.

PETER HARBISON, Aviation Analyst: In terms of their strategy bluntly I don’t think their strategy’s in place yet, today. You’re going to have to have a very flexible strategy. You’ve got to be able to adapt from day to day and for that you’re going to need very very good management if you’re going to really hit the button with your decisions.

Reporter: Sir Richard how are you going with the CASA approvals.

RICHARD BRANSON: They’ve told us that we can get up and announce fares on sale from August 3rd. We’re ready, we’re literally on the dots and the crosses now.

JOHN RABY: A commercial airline has to be approved by the CASA Authority and we ultimately would be issued with what’s called an Air Operator’s Certificate an AOC is the acronym for that. And that will licence us to fly certain routes, certain aircrafts and sell the seats on those aeroplanes.

RICHARD BRANSON: There has to be a tension until you’ve actually got this little paper in your hand. You know you have to always be concerned that some little thing somewhere may go wrong which delays things. And obviously that would be embarrassing to say the least.

JOHN RABY: We’re all I think starting to feel the pressure now. We’re probably putting a lot of stress on ourselves I suppose.

BRETT GODFREY: We’ve had to produce about 17 manuals which provide probably in excess of four or five thousand pages. The crux of the whole AOC is to get our manuals to a state that CASA say that we will be able to operate safely and compliant wise within the industry.

14th July, News Item

JOHN ANDERSON, Transport Minister: They have set themselves a very ambitious timetable but that’s their right. I just clearly indicate that of course AOC’s are something we do not hand out lightly.

BRETT GODFREY: We have been working around the clock in fact. We’ve had manual writer’s working shift hours.

We’ve bought on a lot of resource to try and get the thing done as quickly as we believe it can be done without pushing the envelope.

19th July

BRETT GODFREY: The last thing Virgin would ever want to do is to get into a situation where they’re looking at reprotecting passengers on our first day. I mean that’s just not the way businesses are meant to be run. It’s been a bit tough today. I’ve made probably half a dozen phone calls to people who are in the know, and unfortunately it just seems to be this time of year that certain of the key people for us and who’ve been working very hard the CASA people who’ve been working very hard with us are not available and so I’m trying holiday destinations from wherever they are to find out how we’re going.

20th July

BRETT GODFREY: I’m waiting on some calls back from CASA, which I hope to have by this afternoon. But there’s been at the grassroots level of people that are working on the manuals and the files have suggested to us that perhaps the process is being pushed too quickly. Unlike yesterday I would say I was not concerned, I’m a little concerned because the silence is a little bit bothersome. But I would like to think by the end of the day we’ll have a clearer picture on what’s happening.

21st July- staff meeting

BRETT GODFREY: The world isn’t ending and it’s not going to end with us. There is a postponement that we’re looking at for 3rd August and I want people to realise that there is no issue of job security. I’ve been speaking to Richard this morning.

CASA have been happy with some elements of our programme and unhappy with others and that’s to be expected and things have come to light in the last 24 hours that they’re not exceedingly happy or satisfied with our manuals. The reason we’re not giving a date is that the fear is that we can’t do this again of course. It’s not right to put people at risk who want to travel.

Booking Staff phoning Customers
Hello it’s Denis from Virgin Blue Airlines from Brisbane, how are you doing? Cool. I’m not ringing with particularly good news. Unfortunately we haven’t been given the okay to start flying on the third of August ...

... We’re more than happy to give you a complete refund now and still offer you that free flight ...

AMANDA BOLGER: It’s kind of intimidating walking out knowing you’re about to cop it and you’ve got to cop it sweet I guess.

Media Conference

BRETT GODFREY: It’s a disappointment, I wouldn’t say it’s a major disappointment. These things do happen.

REPORTER: Are you worried about public perceptions now there’s been a stalled start up date?

BRETT GODFREY: No. What we will guarantee is that when we come out with a statement as to the start date that will be the start date.

AMANDA BOLGER: The truth will be told on when we see the news tonight. You just never know. So we’ll be sitting there with anxious little hearts. So yeah it’ll be interesting.

News broadcast

... but for now to avoid any further uncertainty the Airline has stopped taking reservations...

Two nights ago

BRETT GODFREY: To say that the last two weeks have been particularly difficult is not an understatement because we felt we were relatively close and for that reason should have been flying in a few days time. We’ve spent some eighteen hundred people hours. We’ve had some forty people involved. We’ve basically regathered all our manuals and completed the process now. We’re going to put the ball back into CASA’s court to some degree. In other words asking them to move as quickly as they can.

For the last few days it’s been important to staff morale to get around and talk to everyone.

They’re looking forward to their holidays but like all of us there will be no holidays until we can actually take some people on their own holidays by flying an aeroplane. And that’s what we’re coming pretty close to I believe now.

CASA said yesterday that "if all requirements are met Virgin Blue should be flying by late August or early September."


Brett Godfrey

Virgin Blue



Sir Richard Branson

Jac Bowie