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Running Into Richard Branson

"We'd like to schedule an interview with Richard Branson please." It seemed a simple enough request. This transportation tycoon is known as a man who to loves to talk, and loves to hear himself talk. We wanted to listen to him talk about flying - or rather - trying to fly during the ash cloud aviation angst. This is a subject that tends to make him incandescent. He's sure Britain's civil aviation authority overstated the concern and cost him, and other airline bosses, an absolute fortune. So why wouldn't he happily seize the moment to rant? 

Well, maybe HE would be happy to, but quite often the problem with trying to interview Mr. or Mrs. "such and such" about "something or other" is that often they employ "so and so's" - who love the word no in all its hideous forms. So, the "so and so's" said no. And we pushed. And they said no again. And then we moved on. As you do. Which is what makes this moment more than a little odd. 

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Barely a week later, Erin Boudreau (the CBC London producer), Richard Devey (one of our cameramen/editors) and I are standing in a Virgin Airways departure lounge at Heathrow en route to Ghana for a series of stories leading up the FIFA world cup. Suddenly, Ghanaian drummers start pounding away and a few waiting passengers start dancing and clapping. Through the crowd, in a storm of camera flashes, emerges Branson. You can recognize that shock of blond/white hair and matching teeth anywhere. So much for us being a crack news team. What we didn't realize when we booked our flight was that this would be Virgin's maiden voyage to Ghana, which means Branson flies and parties. As, it seems, you do. It also means that should the "so and so's" be on board, they theoretically couldn't stop us from talking with him. Heck, we are paying passengers stuck with him on this lipstick red tube for 6 hours and 14 minutes, after all. 

Surely, surely he will wander to the waaaay back of the plane to meet the passengers on the maiden trip. 

Surely, surely, I could ask him SOMETHING. 

Not just about the ash cloud, but about Ghana. Why Ghana? The national air carrier just went broke, what makes him think the economic climate will be right for Virgin to pick up the route. Is it that Ghana is about to pump oil and, perhaps, become an ever-more destination? 

Two movies later (Invictus and the Blind Side: a veritable sports buffet to get in the mood for weeks of tales of athletic triumph and tragedy), still no sign of the man himself. My eyes dart forward, looking for action in the pointy, privileged section of the plane. Nothing. A quick request from Erin to one of Branson's staff about whether he could spare a minute. A polite "I'll check," always a code for no. Perhaps some "so and so's" had indeed boarded.

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In one of those long plane lulls between sleep and food and fidgeting, the cabin all around us suddenly filled with clouds of hairspray. It seemed toxic enough, surely, to warrant the oxygen masks dropping down. As I looked behind me I noticed the women had vast makeup cases spread out on the seats and table trays; powder, eye shadow, blush, all used in concert in a remarkable primping frenzy. The blonde started working on the brunette's hair. The brunette worried about the blonde's nails. Back and forth to the washrooms a few times and they all emerged in the red flight attendant uniforms. Clearly, they were ready for a show. 

First British flags emerged, then a Ghanaian flag. Once down on the ground, most of the passengers erupted into applause and then another burst of clapping when Branson loped down the aisle towards the back of the plane, beaming entourage in tow.

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"Wait! Stop!" But no. No interview, not even a quick clip about an ash cloud adventure and no more eye contact with the very polite staffer who had offered to check on his "availability."

Regular passengers loaded out one door, Team Branson out the other to an awaiting celebration of this first voyage. More waiting, drums, more camera flashes, more ceremonial dress, more smiling red suited flight attendants. I THINK Branson may even have been wearing a bright red sash. Or not. It was hard to see from the bus all of us other passengers had been loaded onto. So, so much for the mid air chit chat. 

At last glance, the colourful clutch seemed to be heading into a terminal for yet another celebration. And we made our way to the friendly faces at the Accra customs desk. As you do.

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