A few minutes in the sky with Richard Branson

The Virgin Group billionaire talked to CNET in-flight about why he doesn't see Elon Musk's SpaceX as a competitor and what he thinks BP should do next.

Richard Branson at a Virgin America press conference at San Francisco International Airport on Tuesday morning. Caroline McCarthy/CNET

Virgin Group CEO and entrepreneurial icon Richard Branson promised "one hell of a party" for the kickoff flight for air carrier Virgin America's first international route from San Francisco to Toronto on Tuesday, and if the trays of mimosas and acai-cranberry cocktails that kept getting toted past his first-class seat were any indication, his promise would not be broken.

Branson, a British national who was knighted in 1999, has become one of Silicon Valley's icons of late for his enterprises in green energy and the fledgling Virgin Galactic space company, and Virgin America is headquartered in the San Francisco Bay Area. At the press conference to kick off the new route, San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom and California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger were on hand to talk up how Virgin America's ongoing expansion will bring more jobs to the state and a forward-thinking attitude to the airline industry.

The plane was jam-packed with reporters and camera crews looking to grab a sound bite from the legendary adventurer-entrepreneur, but CNET managed to snag a few minutes as the plane soared 588 miles per hour above the Midwest to ask Branson about clean energy, BP, and fellow green-tech pioneer Elon Musk of Tesla Motors .

Q: You're someone who's been a big advocate of private enterprise stepping in where government has failed, like with space travel. Right now, following the BP oil disaster in the Gulf of Mexico, there's a lot of public anger toward both the government and the energy business. What's your take on what really happened and how the public should be reacting?
Richard Branson: I think hopefully the positive thing that will come out of the Gulf crisis is that the acceptability of leaning toward clean energy , creating hundreds of thousands of jobs in clean energy, will happen a lot quicker than it will happen if that crisis hadn't happened. Something positive's got to come out of it and I hope that'll be the positive thing that comes out of it. The world needs us to wean ourselves off dirty fuels for the sake of the world, for the sake of the people who live in the world, for the sake of national security, and so maybe something positive will come out of the mess.

If Virgin ran an energy company, what would it look like?
We do run an energy company, and we're producing isobutanol, which is a completely clean fuel which will power our planes one day in the future.

How soon do you think it will be?
Well, we have jet aviation fuel now that we're producing and we now just need to go through the whole process of permissions from the FAA and the CAA and that may take two or three years, but it will happen.

What do you see in the future for another forward-thinking transportation entrepreneur, Elon Musk, now that his company Tesla Motors has gone public, and he too is trying to push into the space-travel market?
He's a great personal friend. He's got a great company. He's more interested in taking things into space than people. Both Virgin Galactic and Elon Musk's company ( SpaceX ) I think will work very closely in fulfilling two sort of different roles in space travel. Elon's bought a ticket on Virgin Galactic and I think there are many ways that we're going to work together in future years. He's a great visionary, great friend, and it's very exciting what he's doing.

What's one piece of advice you'd have for BP?
(There is a very long pause.) I don't think they've had the best public relations officer, so maybe they should change their public relations officer . Let me think, one serious bit of advice. I do think that they're actually no worse than any other oil company, they've just had some bad luck. They've been kicked and they've been kicked and they've been kicked, and they just need to get on and, which they are doing, get this problem resolved which they will hopefully in August and I think if they could put a lot of any resources they've got left into clean energy, they could redeem themselves in that way.

 

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