I scanned the tarmac from my window seat. No gorgeous models holding Virgin America flags. No extravagant red carpet or cocktail service set out under the inviting Orlando sunshine. No R&B icons, rock stars, or daytime soap actors to pose for the dozens of cameras lined up at the jet bridge.
I thought we might have taxied to the wrong terminal until I saw the undeniable proof that we were in the right place; Richard Branson in a fanny pack, visor, and a colorful tropical shirt, enthusiastically guiding our Airbus A320 (dubbed California Dreamin’) into Gate 109.
The day’s events unfolded rather quickly and routinely, with Branson, CEO David Cush, & Orlando Mayor Buddy Dyer all giving remarks about their excitement for the Virgin brand to be in Orange County. Guests took costumed snapshots in a theme-park-style photo booth while a lively balloon twister passed around a latex rendition of a Virgin America airplane. Within an hour or so the event was over, and the flight back to the West Coast was ready to board.
Having attended two major launches & the premiere of ‘Fly Girls’ in the past year, I’d unwittingly become accustomed to a certain level of lavish presentation at Virgin America events. A connoisseur of Branson allure, if you will. Part of me almost expected flashing lights, loud music, & beautiful people sipping Veev on the rooftop of a hip hotel.
But the playful costumes, bright red fanny packs & family friendly theme all seemed to signify unchartered territory for Virgin America. A sensitive approach to a new and different market.
It would be hard to argue that Orlando has the same obvious sex appeal as the airline’s other 11 destinations. It’s a city that thrives on family-centric tourism & conference organizers looking to roll down their business socks; certainly not the typical tech-savvy creative class that is often drawn to the airline’s mood lighting, seatback touch-screens, and ubiquitous in-flight WiFi.
Nonetheless, Orlando attracted over 43.3 million domestic visitors in 2009 alone, and direct routes from the West Coast aren’t as plentiful as you might expect. My last flight on a low-cost carrier from Central Florida to the Bay Area was an eight hour zig-zag window-seat tour of the Midwest’s finest. A fragmented journey that quickly dulled the fond memories I had of golden Florida sunsets, a thrilling space shuttle launch, and epic mouse-eared magic.
Given the alternative, our direct four-and-a-half hour flight from Los Angeles to Orlando was a downright treat; one that I’m sure many tourists and Orlando residents will be receptive to.
It’s been a big year for the young airline, and they’re poised for rapid expansion. They’ve announced service to five new destinations (three of which are international routes), reported their first profitable quarters since beginning operations in 2007, and placed an aircraft order that will more than double their current fleet.
Hype & spectacle or not, the launch into the Orlando market is just as significant as their entry into DFW later this year. It’s a shift in the type of destinations that the airline is targeting; high-traffic routes that are currently underserved by low-cost carriers.
Does that mean we’ll see Virgin America in Kansas City anytime soon? Probably not. They’ll have to continue pick and choose routes that are in demand and in need of better service. But with an in-flight experience that’s unmatched by any domestic carrier, I’ll be first in line to welcome such expansions; rooftop party or not.