Inside Virgin America’s mid-continent arrival

Virgin America DFW

I don’t think I actually understood the implications of Virgin America’s launch into “fortress-hub” Dallas/Fort Worth until we touched down on the tarmac.

As we taxied to our gate, I could see nothing but a endless row of silver fuselages; all adorned with the iconic blue & red “AA” logo. It felt almost as if we were silently making our way through the front gates of a modern-day Troy.

The only difference, of course, was that this Trojan horse was bright red, equipped with mood lighting, and ready to be received by a cheering crowd of residents, city officials, and the rebel billionaire himself, Sir Richard Branson. To top it off, the tarmac was host to a pen of live bulls, tent with cocktail service, and full fledged Texan barbecue – the type of spectacle I’ve come to know, love, and anticipate when Virgin wants to catch people’s attention.

And it certainly seems as if American has already taken notice. In the weeks leading up to the launch, the legacy carrier lowered fares by 20% and offered double frequent flyer miles aboard Dallas-San Francisco and Dallas-Los Angeles routes.

DFW Public Affairs Manager, David Magaña, also mentioned that American hasn’t been able to stop talking about Virgin’s arrival preceding the event, as it signifies the first of several low-cost carriers that will be entering the Dallas market in 2011. While this loosens American’s 85% share of flights from the hub, it spurs competition and ultimately lower fares for passengers.Virgin America’s first mid-continent destination comes at a good moment in the airline’s young story. They posted their first quarterly net profit (as opposed to operating profit) in Q3 of 2010 and were rated top domestic airline for the third year running in the 2010 Zagat Global Airline Survey. At this year’s Farnborough Air Show, they announced plans to more than double their fleet with a purchase of 40 new Airbus A320’s. Now, with their entrance into Dallas consummated, they’ve shown that they’re ready to make their presence tangible and (thankfully) shake thing up a bit.


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However, to make a significant impact, they’ll have to add more flights. At the moment, Virgin America will offer two daily nonstop flights between DFW and Los Angeles, and two to San Francisco. Although it plans to add a third on each route, it would require significantly more options to directly compete with the hundreds of flights per day that American and American Eagle offer.

“It signifies a second stage for the company. We knew eventually that we’d be going into the middle of the country but now seemed the right time since we’ve blanketed most of the coasts. So this is the second stage of our network development.” Virgin America CEO David Cush said in an interview on the flight.

He also emphasized the company’s dedication with hiring “creative, smart, risk-tolerant people who are willing to go out and push the envelope.” as they grow, and that they’re “not sitting back”, but pursuing the development of a “new in-flight experience” that could be ready as soon as 2012.

The night proceeded to unfold in Dallas’s emerging and surprisingly modern downtown arts district with an intimate performance by activist & music icon, Willie Nelson. Following Nelson’s recent arrest for possession of marijuana, Branson donned a shirt that read “Free Willie” and cheekily quipped that the 77-year old musician looked good after “losing six ounces”.

Virgin America DFW

In partnership with nonprofit foundation Stand Up To Cancer, Virgin transformed the Winspear Opera House into a glowing red hub of its own; filled with Dallas’s elite and hundreds of donors that had gathered friends for Stand Up To Cancer’s cause.

It was an impressive occasion that only an airline leveraging Branson’s magic could pull together, and one that sent a clear signal to the rest of Dallas. Virgin America has entered the mid-continent rodeo, and is ready to take the legacy bulls by their horns.

For more information, check out Virgin America’s introductory fares and schedules right here.

Virgin America lands at Dallas Fort Worth (Photos)

Watch out Dallas; the original maverick has come to town. Today, Virgin America officially kicked off its brand new service from LAX & SFO to Dallas Fort Worth with an inaugural flight & tarmac reception hosted by Sir Richard Branson and Dallas mayor, Tom Leppert.

With live bulls in a pen and a sign that read “Don’t fly like cattle”, Virgin America made their message very clear; they’ve come to Dallas to compete with the big boys and they’re committed to offering high quality service to gain that competitive edge.

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In celebration of the occasion, Virgin America has partnered with Stand Up to Cancer to throw a Texas-sized bash this evening at Dallas’s Winspear Opera House, where Grammy Award winner Willie Nelson will give a special surprise performance.

Gadling is on hand to find out what this launch means for competitors (American Airlines), DFW, and passengers. We’ll be speaking with Virgin America’s CEO, David Cush, to find out where the airline is headed & what their future plans are as they continue to expand with new international & domestic routes.

Stay tuned for an exclusive inside look at the event!

Inside Virgin America’s Orlando launch (w/ Photos)

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.

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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.

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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.

New Virgin America routes to be announced soon!

Rumor at 36,000-feet is that Virgin America will announce its long-delayed service to Chicago later this month, but that’s not all that the low-cost airline has in store for its domestic travelers.

I caught up with Virgin America CEO David Cush via online chat onboard my flight from Los Angeles to Boston earlier this week and learned about a few more cities the airline has in the pipeline.

Cush said he’ll likely have some news for flight attendants later this week about new planes and new routes. While the general public will have to wait until a bit later this year, in-flight sources suggest to me that Dallas, Orlando and Atlanta might be the next target cities.

But here’s the best news from my main cabin seat: Cush told us that Virgin America is considering service to Canada saying, “We certainly plan on expanding to Canada at some point (maybe sooner rather than later) and are very excited about it.”
No clues yet on which city the airline will service, but among the strongest Canadian candidates, our money is on either Toronto or Whitehorse.%Gallery-87349%

Before you go, be sure to check out Episode 4 of Gadling’s Travel Talk TV, which features good and bad pilots, Holi, and a sofa in an aquarium!

Virgin America launches SFO/LAX to Ft. Lauderdale!

Greetings from 35,000 ft! Right now, we’re onboard Virgin America’s inaugural flight from San Francisco to Ft Lauderdale, which touches down in the Sunshine State at 3:30 PM.

Today’s expansion marks the tenth destination for Virgin America and the first connection from the Golden State to the Gold Coast. In celebration, Virgin America has brought along a handful of winners from their “Stay Golden America” competition, and will be donating $1 to budding entrepreneurs for every tweet containing the tag #HelpVirginUnite.

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This afternoon, there will be a tarmac reception from Richard Branson and CEO of Virgin America, David Cush. The event will conclude with a launch party hosted at the W Ft. Lauderdale – where Gadling will be posting full event coverage and getting the down-low on Virgin America’s expansion plans.

Be sure to track our feed for updates, photos, exclusive interviews, and reviews of the entire Virgin America experience.

Update: Check out our full coverage of the event – Article / Photos & Exclusive Video