30 Year Journey: Saving the day when Richard Branson forgot his passport

By: Maxine Sheppard

June 27, 2014

Still on hand to save the day, Flight Service Manager Mary Chaffey looks back over 30 years in the skies…

Nothing to lose

Having flown for four airlines and worked on cruise ships, I was temping in Croydon and answered an ad in the London Evening Standard. Two days later I was being interviewed at Lowfield Heath, West Sussex. The Virgin people wanted me to start straight away, but in the office, not flying. Although I was disappointed, I understood when he explained that they didn’t actually own an aircraft at that point! I was then taken to meet the person in charge of the office, a French woman who looked like she was at the end of her tether. She was on her own, surrounded by thousands of application forms, and the first thing she said to me was ‘you would be crazy to work here’. I didn’t have much to lose so accepted the job and wonder what she’d think if she knew I was still here 30 years later.


Although I was crew on the inaugural on the 22nd June, my first flight as cabin crew was on the proving flight to Maastricht. There was a big press conference with Richard Branson and Mike Oldfield. I remember Richard saying that Tubular Bells had made him his first million and that the airline would make him his second.

But even millionaires (or billionaires, I should say) are only human. During the first flight to New York, with the world’s press on board, Richard told me he had forgotten his passport – because he hadn’t gone through the normal security channels, no-one had spotted it before take-off. The Mayor of New York, Ed Koch, met the flight and I asked him if he could help Richard to get through immigration (it wouldn’t have looked good if he was deported). I introduced Richard to the Mayor and, strangely, Richard asked how long it would take to clean a 747. We both looked at Richard who then asked how many cleaners would be coming on board. I then had to explain to Richard that he was talking to the Mayor of New York, not someone responsible for aircraft cleaning. Richard apologised and off he went with the Mayor who got him safely through immigration and to the party that night.

Richard featured in my funniest moment over the last 30 years, and he was also present in my proudest moment. That’s when he gave me a Cabin Crew of the Month Award for looking after three members of cabin crew who had witnessed a terrible incident in Miami.


No, it’s never boring. You continually meet new people, passengers and crew, and then meet up with them on future flights, sometimes years later. Chatting to these people helps while away the hours when you are working all through the night. I now know how to get to some of the best shops, beaches and restaurants in the world. Hong Kong for me, is the best place for sightseeing, bars and shopping round the clock. I also learned how to ski on a trip to Los Angeles, which is something I always wanted to do.

Lifelong friends

Naturally a lot has changed over the years. We only had one aircraft and one route (to New York) in 1984! For the first 18 months there were only circa 70 crew and the camaraderie was extraordinary. We all knew each other really well and many lifelong friends were made – there’s obviously a lot more of us now.  The other thing that I always feel proud about is that when we launched nobody expected us to last; in fact, 30 years on we’re still here.

If you decide to become a cabin crew member, my advice would be: don’t stay in your room. I’ve come across so many amazing things just wandering around the great cities we fly to. Walking in San Francisco I heard someone singing I Left My Heart in San Francisco – it was Tony Bennett singing live in Union Square!

Mary Chaffey

1984: Knew her way around the Croydon shopping centre.

2014: Knows the best shops, beaches and restaurants in the world.

Why not find out more about at Life at Virgin Atlantic?


Maxine Sheppard

Maxine is the co-editor of the Virgin Atlantic blog. Travel and music are her joint first loves, and despite having written for Virgin for more years than she cares to remember she still loves nothing more than jumping on a plane in search of new sights and new sounds.