Virgin America Enters the Fray

America’s biggest domestic air carriers aren’t happy to hear the news, but Richard Branson’s latest brainchild, Virgin America, has entered the crowded field of budget airlines.

The airline began its NYC (JFK) to San Francisco (SFO) service August 8. Tickets went on sale in July, and with fares as low as $139 one-way, most went quickly. (One-way tickets between San Francisco and Los Angeles started at $44.)

At this time, Virgin America is flying only from New York, Washington D.C. (Dulles), Las Vegas, Los Angeles, and San Francisco, but the airline has plans to expand service to 10 additional cities by the end of 2008.

That news is unlikely to be received well over at JetBlue. That airline has enjoyed Top Dog status as the cross-country carrier of choice based on low fares, comfy leather seats, and 36 channels of free TV for all customers.

Virgin will easily compete and perhaps outdo JetBlue with leather seats, in-flight entertainment that includes movies, TV, music playlists, better snacks and drinks, and in-seat messaging. Additionally, each seat in coach comes with USB and ethernet ports and a 110-volt outlet. VA planes will also boast mood lighting throughout the cabin and loos with individual soundtracks. First-class passengers can expect 28-inch wide seats at a 55-inch pitch in addition to massage and recline controls.

The airline, based in San Francisco, will use a fleet of Airbus A320s that can hold up to 149 passengers (eight in first class).

JetBlue and other domestic carriers have responded to the emergence of Virgin America by announcing reduced airfares for fall travel up to the busy Thanksgiving holiday weekend. Those fares, however, aren’t easy to find. A sampling of flights from NYC to SF on JetBlue for the period October 1-7 yielded roundtrip fares of $373 while Virgin America priced the same flight at $278. Do the math.

Chris Culwell