TRAVEL

Virgin America returns the frills to flying

Los Angeles Times Staff Writer

For a moment Wednesday, the shiny new planes seemed like a throwback to an era when flying was glamorous, service was a priority and airline food didn't cost extra.

Champagne was flowing. Every seat had a tiny TV monitor of its own. Celebrities strutted through the cabin, which was lighted in cool blue and pink. It looked like an airborne discotheque.

Virgin America took off in raucous style Wednesday.

At a time when no-frills flying is in the air, the airline hopes to combine spiffy new planes, competitive fares and many creature comforts that have gradually disappeared from domestic flights.

The carrier, which just barely received permission late Tuesday from the Federal Aviation Administration to start operations after a three-year battle, will have five daily flights each way between Los Angeles International Airport and San Francisco. On Aug. 29, it will start twice daily nonstop service from LAX to New York's John F. Kennedy Airport.

But how much of Virgin America's in-flight bells and whistles will keep passengers loyal is unknown considering that travelers have traditionally voted with their pocketbooks.

The industry is littered with failed or no-longer-in-existence carriers. Serving as a reminder of that, a preflight celebration at LAX was held at an aviation museum filled with models of planes flown by airlines that are no longer operating, including such well-known carriers as Pan Am and TWA.

But with the higher cost of providing the new amenities and improved service, it is unclear how long Virgin can keep fares low enough to compete in an industry that is extremely conscious of costs.

Virgin America's promotional fares have so far driven competitors to reduce or match fares, turning a trip to San Francisco affordable for many Los Angeles travelers. Prices to San Francisco start as low as $44.

United Airlines, which has the largest number of flights between San Francisco and LAX, reduced its fares by more than half, while JetBlue, which flies from Long Beach to Oakland has also matched Virgin's promotional fares since the airline announced it would begin service.

In classic Hollywood style Wednesday morning, television news cameras lined up behind chain-link fences at LAX to catch celebrity passengers boarding an Airbus A320 that had been christened "California Dreaming" for the flight.

"This airline is needed to push up the standards," said Rachel Hunter, a former supermodel and frequent flier who was invited to try out the service. "Domestic airlines have not been very good."

Virgin went to great lengths to project its image as the "cool" airline with such over-the-top amenities as mood lighting, a self-service mini-bar and music in the bathrooms. That's on top of a satellite television at every seat with on-demand movies, games, iPod connection and the ability to text message other passengers or take part in what may be the first "in-flight chat room."

In first class, the privileged few get plush white leather seats with an in-seat massage and footrests, though on Wednesday's flight the seats were left empty and used as a lounge area. There were probably too many celebrities for the eight seats that were in first class.

Wednesday's flight from LAX touched down at San Francisco International at the same time as a Virgin America plane from New York that carried the airline's founder, British billionaire Richard Branson.

Though he has reduced his stake in the airline because of concerns over foreign ownership of a U.S. carrier, Branson has been successful at competing against stalwarts in the industry such as British Air and Qantas. In Australia, Branson's low-cost airline Virgin Blue is now the second-largest airline in the country after only four years of flying.

"I think Virgin will make a real difference for travelers in America," Branson said at a rousing reception at San Francisco International, the carrier's home base. "American airlines have never really cared about quality in the sky."

Some industry analysts give Virgin America a better chance than others, mainly because of Branson's marketing acumen.

"They have two things going for them: name and new services like when JetBlue Airways got attention when it offered TV at each seat," said Ray Neidl, airline analyst with Calyon Securities. "You have to get out of the box fast and they're doing that."

The airline is already wooing the tech-savvy Internet generation, among other things with an on-board chat room and a keyboard connection in every seat.

"It's kind of fun chatting on an airplane," actress Haylie Duff typed into her tiny hand-held keyboard. Messaging from her seat to another several rows ahead, she gushed, "Loov the tiny TVs and the chats."


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