Richard Branson Dishes On Airplane Wifi, His New LinkedIn Partnership, And The Gender Pay Gap

A few minutes with the Virgin Group's billionaire founder.

Richard Branson is gamely trying to convince me that Virgin America passengers are going to willingly watch web design video tutorials on their flights.

“Some people may just want to watch the films, but I think there will be quite a few people who will, on a long journey — they’ll use it to learn,” he says. “It will be fascinating to see what percentage of the plane tap into it.”

We’re sitting in first class of one of Branson's Virgin America jet planes. Nearly the entire galley has emptied out following Virgin’s inaugural flight from San Francisco to Denver. Virgin is debuting the new route this week, along with a new program providing free in-flight access to LinkedIn’s Lynda, which offers professional training courses online.

Branson is munching on some snacks when I arrive, offering me a seat next to him. It's a very large seat. "Man's gotta eat," he tells me with a shrug. I have five minutes with him. It’s not long, but enough to cover a number of topics with the Virgin Group's billionaire founder. Among them: the gender pay gap, bad airplane wifi, Virgin America’s LinkedIn partnership, and, yes, Branson's commercial space travel ambitions.

The partnership with LinkedIn’s Lynda is extensive. The entire catalogue will be available for free on any device on Virgin America flights equipped with the souped-up ViaSat wifi. A pared-down version of Lynda will be available on the seat-back monitors during all Virgin America flights.

LinkedIn’s VP of global consumer products, Ryan Roslansky, is also aboard the plane. He says LinkedIn is not charging Virgin for any of the courses. “We see it as a great way to get always-on learning in the hands of professionals when they have free time on their hands.” Of course, it could also be a good way to get them interested in paying for Lynda when they land.

And about that wifi. It sure works better than a lot of the garbage currently accessible in the air, but it’s only operational on a limited number of flights. Asked if people can expect to see more of it, Branson says: “I think it’s being rolled out across all Virgin flights as we speak.” A spokesman later says the company is still discussing its relationship with Gogo, the much derided in-flight wifi service, so a full roll-out is still, umm, up in the air.

The conversation then moves to space. Branson’s Virgin Galactic, which plans to send civilians into space for around $200,000 a ticket, is nearing the bookings level is saw before one of its ships had a fatal accident in October 2014, according to Virgin executives. Branson says the company isn’t far away from its much anticipated launch day. “We’re getting close,” he says. “There’s a number of test flights still to be got through and then we’ll be up up and away.”

One of Branson’s competitors, SpaceX’s Elon Musk, recently pledged to audit the gender pay gap at his company. Asked if he would do the same, Branson tells me he would examine the possibility. “I take my hat off to him for doing so,” he says of Musk. “I’ll look at what Elon is doing and see whether we should do something similar.”

Then he offers a quick handshake and a smile, and it's off to the next interview.

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