Virgin America, the upstart carrier founded by British billionaire Richard Branson, began flying between Orange County’s John Wayne Airport and San Francisco International Airport on Wednesday for as little as $49 one way.
The launch of the low-fare service began with a glitzy party on the airport tarmac where celebrities, such as rapper MC Hammer and the cast of reality show “The Real Housewives of Orange County,” welcomed passengers on the first flight from San Francisco.
The reception, with rock music and bikini-clad models, was vintage Branson, who got off the plane wearing a swimsuit and clutching a bodyboard.
Since its launch nearly two years ago, the airline has shaken up the industry by offering low fares and unusual onboard amenities such as mood lighting and wireless Internet.
At Los Angeles International Airport, Virgin America has helped drive fares lower. And analysts anticipate a similar reaction at John Wayne Airport, which traditionally has had higher fares than other airports in the region because of a cap on the number of flights that can operate there.
The start of Virgin America’s service at John Wayne came just nine days before Southwest is expected to start its San Francisco service from Orange County. Southwest is offering $44 one-way fares when bought in advance, or $5 less than Virgin America.
“Finally Orange County’s got a really good, first-class airline for everybody to use,” Branson said before he left to do some afternoon kite surfing in Laguna Beach.