Virgin airline begins flights between Phila. and California

Richard Branson, Virgin Group founder, helps Deputy Mayor Rina Cutler whip up the crowd as Mayor Nutter (left) and Philadelphia International Airport CEO Mark Gale watch. MICHAEL S. WIRTZ / Staff Photographer
Richard Branson, Virgin Group founder, helps Deputy Mayor Rina Cutler whip up the crowd as Mayor Nutter (left) and Philadelphia International Airport CEO Mark Gale watch. MICHAEL S. WIRTZ / Staff Photographer
Posted: April 05, 2012

Under California-blue skies and welcomed by cheerleaders, Mayor Nutter and the "Rocky" theme song, the first Virgin America flight from Los Angeles arrived Wednesday at Philadelphia International Airport to inaugurate new daily nonstop service to the West Coast.

Virgin, with its trademark mix of sexy and techy, is the first new airline in eight years to begin operations in Philadelphia. The daily flights to Los Angeles and San Francisco will mean an immediate reduction in fares, as competing airlines - especially US Airways - move to match Virgin's prices.

Introductory fares started at $159 each way to L.A. and $179 to San Francisco.

Virgin founder Sir Richard Branson, looking a little like an older, skinnier John Kruk with his shaggy haircut and beard, accepted a Phillies jersey from Nutter to don over his soccer-style red-and-white Virgin shirt at a midafternoon celebration on the airport tarmac.

Branson promised his airline, with live TV and Internet service, stylish interiors and award-winning food, would make flights between Philadelphia and the West Coast cheaper and more fun.

"The quality has not been great" on the airlines now serving the route, Branson said. US Airways, which had 83 percent of the nonstop seats to Los Angeles, will see that drop to 63 percent with Virgin's entry into the market, and decline from 72 percent to 56 percent of the seats to San Francisco.

"On paper, anyway, it looks like it's ripe for giving the airline that is on the route a run for its money and giving passengers a choice," Branson said in an interview in the white leather first-class seats of the inaugural plane. "We've done this in other cities in America, and we've been successful in all of them ... and I see no reason why we shouldn't have the same success in Philadelphia."

"In other cities, we're generally competing with three or four carriers, and in Philadelphia, we're really only competing with one. You know, my motto in life is, 'screw it, just do it,' so we give things a try, and generally speaking, we're successful."

A spokesman for US Airways in Philadelphia, Todd Lehmacher, said, "US Airways always welcomes competition in the marketplace.

"We look forward to continuing to compete vigorously with all airlines serving Philadelphia and are proud of the reliable service US Airways offers the local market which includes a robust European schedule and high frequency flights to major west coast destinations."

Virgin American chief executive David Cush said Virgin expects low fares to boost demand for west coast travel, citing the airline's experience in Dallas-Fort Worth, where he said passenger traffic to California jumped by 75 percent, while fares fell by about 50 percent.

"We certainly believe there is a market, or we wouldn't be here," Cush said. He said Virgin thinks Philadelphia has plenty of business and leisure travelers to fill the seats.

"Yes, Philadelphia does have a reputation as a blue-collar town, but it's also built on higher-education and a high level of medical facilities," Cush said. "We think what we've found here is similar to Boston. We like what we see in the demographics."

Initially, Virgin will fly two daily nonstop flights from Philadelphia to Los Angeles (departing at 7 a.m. and 7:55 p.m.) and one daily nonstop from Philadelphia to San Francisco (effective next Tuesday) which will depart at 5:50 p.m. A third daily nonstop flight to Los Angeles will be added later in the year.

Nutter, in welcoming Virgin to Philadelphia, said the five-year-old airline "sets the industry standard for in-flight customer comfort and friendliness," and "will give travelers here more choice."

Several city officials, including airport chief executive Mark Gale and deputy mayor Rina Cutler flew from Los Angeles on the inaugural flight.

Cutler said glitzy Virgin and stolid Philadelphia will mix well.

"It will work, because in its heart, Philadelphia thinks it's hip and cool, and we really are."

Contact Paul Nussbaum at 215-854-4587 or pnussbaum@phillynews.com.

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