Low-fare carriers fight for O.C. fliers


A new skirmish in the West Coast airfare wars has erupted in Orange County, where upstart Virgin America and low-cost behemoth Southwest Airlines are battling for travelers with some of the lowest priced tickets in recent memory.

Virgin America, the airline that has shaken up the industry since it was started by British billionaire Richard Branson a little more than a year ago, announced Tuesday that it would begin flying between John Wayne Airport and San Francisco International Airport in late April and offered an introductory one-way fare of $59.

Southwest, which had announced two weeks ago that it would start service to San Francisco from John Wayne, immediately responded by slashing its own promotional fare to $59, and then to $49 late Tuesday on flights that matched Virgin America’s departure times.


Virgin America’s service is slated to begin April 30, nine days before Southwest begins its service. Both offer five departures a day.

The tit-for-tat battle is expected to benefit Orange County air travelers, who have been paying higher average fares than travelers using other regional airports in Southern California because there is a cap on the number of flights allowed in and out of the airport.

With the addition of the new flights, San Francisco will become the most popular destination for flights leaving John Wayne Airport.

Some analysts said the latest move by Virgin America could portend the carrier’s adding new service to Seattle, Dallas or Chicago from John Wayne. Virgin America Chief Executive David Cush said in a telephone interview Tuesday that, though he wouldn’t rule it out, “it’s currently not in our plans.”

The additional flights will also help the airport stem a loss of airliner service, which has fallen about 10% since last year amid high fuel costs that prompted carriers to slash available seats.

“It will definitely boost passenger traffic and increase average daily flights here,” said Jenny Wedge, spokeswoman for John Wayne Airport. “It’s going to add some big competition, which is always a good thing for travelers. There are going to be some pretty good fares.”


Carriers that now fly the Orange County-San Francisco route -- United Airlines and American Eagle, an affiliate of American Airlines -- could become casualties of the showdown between two low-cost carriers, analysts said.

Virgin America and Southwest have battled at Los Angeles International Airport, leading to lower fares there, and lured customers away from other airlines.

“Everyone is watching Virgin America and trying to head them off at the pass, so to speak,” said Chris McGinnis, a travel consultant and editor of, a blog for travelers in the Bay Area.

The promotional fares offered by Virgin America and Southwest are substantially less than what United and American Eagle were charging for tickets purchased at least two weeks in advance. The major airlines’ fares for the 1 1/2 -hour flight to San Francisco from John Wayne generally range from $100 to $200.

Late Tuesday, both airlines dropped their fares to $69 one-way for flights in May.

Virgin America and Southwest “sense that United is particularly vulnerable,” said Henry Harteveldt, airline analyst for Forrester Research Inc. United “has left itself open to poaching.”

United has been grounding its older, gas-guzzling Boeing 737 jets and shifting short-haul flights to smaller regional jets, which are not very popular with business travelers.


Virgin America and Southwest are also taking advantage of industry woes. Slots at John Wayne opened up last year after Aloha Airlines went bankrupt.

“The opportunity for growth in Orange County doesn’t come along very often,” said Southwest spokeswoman Whitney Eichinger. “So we jumped at the chance.”