Virgin America gets Texas-style welcome for its first flight to D/FW

Cattle, champagne and cowboys greeted Virgin America's inaugural flight to Dallas/Fort Worth Airport.

The carrier, which is 25 percent owned by Sir Richard Branson's Virgin Group, launched service Wednesday between Dallas/Fort Worth and Los Angeles. Flights to San Francisco will start Monday. It will have two daily flights to each city.

Branson, who said he is never one to miss a party, greeted the Virgin America flight on the tarmac as the aircraft, called "An Airplane Named Desire," pulled up to D/FW's new corporate aviation terminal. From there, passengers walked down stairs and onto a red carpet rolled out for them.

Virgin America is the first new domestic carrier to add service to D/FW Airport since 2006. American Airlines dominates the airport.

"You've got a choice," Branson told a crowd of local dignitaries and Virgin America employees. "You can go on that other carrier and get their kind of service, which is sort of a bit like those animals over there," he pointed toward the Fort Worth Herd on the tarmac, "or you can come on the Virgin carrier and you can have a blast."

After years of lobbying U.S. regulators to relax foreign ownership rules of airlines, Branson decided to take a minority stake in Virgin America. The carrier, a separate company from Virgin Atlantic, the British carrier controlled by Branson's Virgin Group, launched in August 2007 and serves 12 destinations.

"I wanted to create the kind of airline that myself and my family would like to fly on, where every single detail is right," Branson said.

Attention to details

Details are what makes Virgin America different from competitors.

Its Airbus A320 fleet is relatively new, outfitted with ergonomic leather chairs, mood lighting and power outlets. Every seat, including those in the back of the plane, has a personal entertainment center that offers video games, films and live television.

"They're trying to bring the fun back to flying, and that's not something you think about -- 'fun' -- when you're flying," said founder Rick Seaney, who was on the first flight from Los Angeles.

Why D/FW Airport

Until Wednesday, Virgin America kept to the coasts.

From its hub in San Francisco, Virgin America built its network flying to cities on either coast. While it tried to obtain landing slots in Chicago, D/FW is Virgin America's first midcontinent city.

"When we decided to come here, it took less than a week to nail everything down," said Virgin America CEO David Cush.

"We look forward to growing here and having a long history here."

With American Airlines operating more than 85 percent of flights out of D/FW, other domestic carriers have been reluctant to add service at the airport. To lure Virgin America, the airport offered $2 million as part of its air service incentive program.

Of that, $375,000 is marketing cash, while the rest is rebates of landing fees.

"This kind of event means D/FW has created more growth for the local economy and more opportunities to fly," airport CEO Jeff Fegan said.

New routes, lower fares

With the arrival of Virgin America, North Texans using D/FW have a new alternative to the West Coast.

"They will drive leisure prices down to some degree, and in some ways they already have," Seaney said. "Whenever you have new routes, typically there is three to six months of introductory pricing."

It currently costs around $280 round-trip to fly the D/FW-Los Angeles and D/FW-San Francisco routes.

But with only two flights a day to each destination against about a dozen for American, Virgin's impact will be minimal, analysts say.

Plus, Cush said that Virgin does not have any plans to add any East Coast destinations from D/FW.

If it does expand its service at D/FW, the carrier will add more flights to the West Coast.

Andrea Ahles, 817-390-7631

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