Virgin America says it wants to move DFW service to Love Field

03/05/2014 7:39 AM

03/05/2014 8:56 AM

Virgin America wants to move a few miles to the east, shutting down its Dallas/Fort Worth Airport operations if it can obtain gates at Dallas Love Field.

On Wednesday, Virgin America said it plans to bid against Southwest Airlines and Delta Air Lines for two Love Field gates that American Airlines is being forced to divest as part of its merger agreement with US Airways.

If it wins, Virgin America said it will offer daily nonstops from Dallas to New York’s LaGuardia airport, Washington, D.C.’s Reagan National, as well as Los Angeles, San Francisco and Chicago.

“We would be flying mainline aircraft to the major business destinations that the people of Dallas want to go to,” said Virgin America’s chief executive David Cush. “We have a product that is probably more aimed at a traditional business traveler, especially on these longer distances.”

The San Francisco-based carrier is 25 percent owned by Sir Richard Branson’s Virgin Group and has been operating flights from Dallas/Fort Worth Airport to Los Angeles and San Francisco since 2010.

Its move to Love Field would occur in October, when the Wright Amendment flight restrictions on service from Love will expire. DFW gave Virgin America $2 million as part of its air service incentive program when it launched its North Texas service. But the incentives ended in December 2012 and Cush said costs did not factor into its decision to bid for the Love gates.

“It is really based on the fact that we want to operate out of a single airport rather than two airports,” Cush said.

The airline has notified officials at DFW of its intentions and Cush said they plan to honor their lease commitment.

“We understand there are several steps in determining a final decision,” said DFW Airport spokesman David Magana. “Virgin America provides great service to the Dallas-Fort Worth region.”

Virgin America already received four takeoff and landing slot pairs at Reagan National Airport and twelve slot pairs at LaGuardia that were divested by American.

It plans to run four daily round trips out of Love to LaGuardia, four to Washington Reagan, three to Los Angeles and three to San Francisco. In 2015, Virgin America would add another daily round trip on its Los Angeles and San Francisco routes and two daily round trips to Chicago O’Hare.

Southwest and Delta both say they have a strong case for the Love gates.

“Unlike other airlines, including Delta and Virgin America, Southwest’s only opportunity to expand service in North Texas is at Love Field due to restrictions in the compromise that led to the partial repeal of the Wright Amendment,” said Southwest spokesman Brad Hawkins, referring to requirements that it give up a gate at Love for every gate it obtains at DFW. “Southwest will actively participate in the process of re-allocating American’s gates at Love Field.”

Delta currently leases the two Love gates from American and operates regional jet service to Atlanta, which is allowed with the smaller planes. After the Wright Amendment restrictions are lifted in October, Delta hopes to use the gates to fly to New York LaGuardia, Los Angeles, Detroit and Minneapolis-St. Paul.

“Delta’s Love Field proposal is part of its overall commitment to North Texas, which includes its recent expansion at DFW Airport,” the Atlanta-based carrier said in a statement. “Delta plans to continue to serve both airports to allow it to serve travelers who reside in all regions of the Dallas/Fort Worth metroplex.”

Cush acknowledged that Tarrant County residents who currently fly on Virgin America are unlikely to drive to Love Field to fly on the carrier.

“I’m sensitive to the fact that the people in Tarrant County may think we’re abandoning them and that’s one of the unfortunate outcomes of this,” Cush said. “But they will get a benefit out of this. The simple fact is that if we’re out of Love Field competing in the local market means that American is going to have to price match us at DFW.”

Cush added that since the carrier is relatively small, it does not need to access the entire Metroplex population to fill up its planes.

“We only need access to a slice of that [population] that has a high propensity to travel,” Cush said.

Cush is familiar with Love Field and the Wright Amendment. He was American’s general sales manager when American started service at Love Field in 2006. At an event to show off its operations at Love shortly before the first flight, Cush admitted that American would have “a difficult time making a profit” with its new service.

The airline pulled out in 2009 as it struggled to attract customers away from Southwest, which dominates passenger traffic at Love Field. The airport’s terminal is being renovated and will be limited to 20 gates. Southwest controls 16 of those gates.

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