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.

Wanderfly.com travel-planning site launches in beta


A new travel-planning website and booking engine is launching this month in beta, and I was excited to give it a test run, having first heard about the site this spring at a EuroCheapo travel happy hour. Wanderfly.com is a “personalized recommendation engine” that takes your interests, budget, and even social network connections to give you inspiration and help you plan your next vacation. Flights and hotels are pulled from Expedia, with restaurant recommendations, activities, and sightseeing descriptions culled from Lonely Planet, FourSquare, NileGuide, and Yelp.

Let’s say you have a week to travel in early September for Labor Day. Budget is under $1,000 per person for flights and hotels, and you’re interested in culture, beaches, and food. Plug all those into the search engine and you’ll get a series of destinations to review, refine, share, and book. While the site still has a few bugs (budget busters would sneak through the filters, the help feature is not fully enabled), the interface is slick and user-friendly, the features are thoughtful, and the content is reliable.

What’s cool about the site:

  • Since I’m currently based in Turkey, I loved that your point of origin could be pretty much anywhere in the world so I could run searches from New York and Istanbul to get a wide variety of places convenient for different parts of the world.
  • A wide (1,200 and growing) network of destinations gave me some ideas I’d never considered or even heard of (Kalingrad, Russia; Azemmour, Morocco; Krabi, Thailand), as well as some more tried-and-true vacation spots(Sunny Isles Beach, Florida; Mykonos, Greece; Split, Croatia).
  • Weather and news tabs give you an idea of the current climate (could be too hot on that Egyptian beach) and happenings, though you might come up with nothing for more obscure destinations. I also love that many of the news feeds are through Twitter accounts like @visitbritain, giving up-to-the-minute quickie items.

What will be cool about the site:

  • Ability to share trip ideas and plans with friends via email or Facebook is great for planning a trip with multiple people or getting feedback on a destination. Currently, Facebook Connect will tell you who you know in a given place, but I’d probably remember if I had a friend in Lutsk, Ukraine.
  • Festivals and special events come up via Eventful, but on the beta site event dates will pop up well after your search range so don’t plan around that blues festival just yet. There are also plans to add destination reviews, currency converters, and travel tips.
  • After all the searching, sorting, and sharing, you can actually book through the site, though only if you have a US credit card. The booking interface is also easy to use and gives options for frequent flier numbers, seat and meal preferences, and room types.

All in all, Wanderfly is a nifty new tool for dreaming and planning your next trip. If they could find a way to integrate time-sensitive deals, local blogs, and multiple-destination trips, this could be the only travel site you need.

Yet another new travel startup

I just came across this little website: flyhere.com. It’s a really simple tool that does just about one thing. Flyhere tells you, well, which flights you can take to get somewhere. You type in a destination, and it’ll tell you all the nonstop flights to that city. Likewise, you can type in a departure point, and it’ll tell you all the places you can fly to from there.

But perhaps most helpful is when you type in both your destination and departure airports, in which case, the site will visually display all the different routes between the two points as well as a list of itineraries for your particular day.

Yes, this is pretty much a single-trick startup. You can’t really hold it up to something like Kayak, but Flyhere could be useful if you’re interested in finding out where you can visit on a direct flight, or if you want to know how to get between two out-of-the-way places.