Virgin America prepares for takeoff

Burlingame-based startup airline Virgin America is open for business.

The brand-new carrier starts selling tickets today, weeks before a much-anticipated inaugural flight to its home base at San Francisco International Airport.

It expects to sell more than one million tickets by mid-February 2008. Officials promised special introductory fares as the airline makes itself at home at SFO.

Virgin America will start off service with two daily flights between SFO and John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York, and five daily flights between SFO and Los Angeles International Airport. By Sept. 9, there will be four scheduled daily flights between SFO and JFK.

By the end of this year, the airline plans on also having daily service to and from Washington Dulles International Airport in Washington, D.C. and McCarran International Airport in Las Vegas. Service to San Diego is also expected at an as-yet undecided date.

“We’ve got a very innovative product, flying to some of the biggest airports in the country, and we think people are really going to like what we have to offer,” company CEO Fred Reid told The Examiner this week.

Bay Area and state officials have for months been rallying behind the airline, which they said would significantly boost the local economy with more jobs, more tourists and more business for SFO. Airport officials and San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom are scheduled to take their first look inside one of its planes today.

It has been a long road for the startup, which has been encumbered with meeting federal Department of Transportation requirements and getting approval to fly.

More than a year ago, Virgin America officials tussled with some of the country’s largest so-called legacy airlines after they raised concerns about foreign ownership of the airline. British billionaire Richard Branson remains a minority shareholder in the company.

The low fares promised by Virgin America could present some competition for fellow low-cost carrier JetBlue, which started service at SFO in May. A summer airfare war was expected to result, if only in the short term, according to Colorado-based aviation consultant Michael Boyd.

Planes are flying particularly full this summer, and it spells good news for airlines who won’t necessarily have to compete for customers, Boyd said.

“It’s a good time to bean airline,” Boyd said. “Customers will maybe see some great low fares to start out, but a full-blown airfare war likely won’t continue past the first six months.”

tramroop@examiner.com

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