Feds clear Virgin ticket sales

Local startup Virgin America earned federal approval Wednesday to start selling tickets this summer, which could prompt an expected summer airfare war between new low-cost carriers flying out of San Francisco International Airport.

The Burlingame-based airline, with its hub at SFO, starts service next month with an inaugural flight to John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York. Within the first nine months of operation, the airline will add Washington Dulles International Airport in Washington, D.C.; McCarran International Airport in Las Vegas; and Los Angeles and San Diego international airports.

Company spokesman Gareth Edmondson-Jones said that while no date has been set for ticket sales to start, it will definitely be sometime this month. He declined to confirm whether there would be special promotional deals offered in light of the brand-new service, but encouraged people to “stay tuned.”

“We can’t wait — we’refinally getting off the ground here,” Edmondson-Jones said.

Airfare analysts had predicted months ago that a low-cost carrier airfare war would start in earnest once JetBlue, which started service at SFO in May, Virgin America and Southwest Airlines, scheduled to start service in the fall, competed in the same Bay Area market. With three airlines clamoring for new customers, it could spell good news for consumers with lower fares.

The federal Department of Transportation’s approval Wednesday was one of the last hurdles the airline had to overcome, capping a long list of federal denials and reviews stemming from concerns about foreign ownership of the company. Billionaire Briton Richard Branson remains a minority shareholder in the airline.

With Major League Baseball All-Star Game festivities drawing hordes of out-of-towners and a busier-than-usual summer season so far, SFO has had no shortage of people in its terminals. Airport forecasts for the rest of the summer show that the trend should continue through the season, SFO spokesman Mike McCarron said.

“We’re excited they’ve been given the green light,” McCarron said, noting it has been a “very good summer” already.

Virgin America is already fully staffed and has 10 Airbus 319/320 aircraft, which include in-flight entertainment systems and mood lighting, waiting in the wings. The Federal Aviation Administration gave its formal safety approval in December.

Weather slows New York flights

San Francisco International Airport is seeing a busy summer so far, but flights to the New York City area, its second most popular domestic destination, are suffering from weather-related delays.

Summer thunderstorms and transcontinental airspace congestion at that busy hub have caused delays at SFO of approximately an hour to the New York City area, according to airport duty manager Abubaker Azam.

The Air Transport Association, a trade organization for most commercial airlines, has been vocal with the federal government about perceived airspace congestion issues at JFK, which has some planes slowly taxiing around the tarmac for hours, in some cases, waiting to take off.

Until some change is implemented, Azam says there is little the airport can do other than ride out the weather issues.

Low cloud ceilings have caused some minor delays at SFO this week, but the major weather-related delays have been concentrated to East Coast hubs like New York, Boston, Newark and Atlanta, he said.

After Los Angeles, the New York metropolitan area is SFO’s most popular domestic destination. Hawaii and the Chicago metropolitan area come in third and fourth, respectively, according to airport statistics.

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