Virgin America: Financials prove service makes a difference

We’ve all gotten used to bailing out airlines that can’t figure out how to take care of their paying customers, operate profitably or otherwise get their respective acts together. And, there really isn’t much hope of this situation changing. To be an airline, in general, is to be dysfunctional … until you look at the new entrant, Virgin America. The privately held carrier announced on Friday that its revenue surged 38.3 percent from the third quarter of 2008 to the third quarter of 2009.

The airline has amassed a collection of awards to back up its commitment to customer service, including “Best Domestic Airline” in Travel + Leisure‘s 2009 World’s Best Awards and “Best Business/First Class” among domestic airlines in Condé Nast Traveler‘s 2009 Business Travel Poll. And, the fact that the 1,500-person company is adding jobs in this market — beating both the recession and its worsened form in the travel business — suggests that it is possible for an airline to not just survive but actually succeed.

David Cush, Virgin America’s President and CEO, says, “Despite an uncertain economic climate since our 2007 launch, we’re pleased to report steady and strong financial performance and our first quarterly operating profit.” He adds, “At a time when flyers are more discerning than ever, it is clear that our low fares, award-winning guest service and innovative amenities continue to convert a growing network of loyal travelers. We look forward to bringing our unique value proposition to more travelers as we grow in 2010 and beyond. ”


But, enough of the soft stuff — let’s turn to the numbers. That’s where you’ll find the truth in these matters. Cost containment and operational efficiency helped Virgin America post a record load factor of 86.6 percent, an increase of 5.2 percentage points year-over-year. Costs per available seat mile were pushed down 33.9 percent (24.4 percent ex-fuel), and operating income swung from a $54 million loss in the third quarter of 2008 to a $5.1 million gain this year. Along the way, Virgin America realized a mishandled baggage rate of 1.18 per thousand — three times better than the industry average. And, it attained an on-time rate of 87.2 percent.

Sorry to go “quant” and dwell on the numbers a bit, but they speak to a common theme here at Gadling: whether the airlines are doomed to fail … and be propped up by the government taxpayers and fail again … and so on. Virgin America’s proved that an airline can amass 1.1 million loyalty program members and fly 5.8 million passengers in just over two years and still find a way to get into the black. There is probably market share gain in this airline’s future, but it is making a big mistake: by not screwing up, it’s taking a pass on all the free money the feds are more than willing to give to an industry that refuses to help itself.