Virgin: Landing for the very first time at SFO

Virgin America’s planes, which landed for the first time Wednesday afternoon at San Francisco International Airport, don’t feel like aircraft.

Its employees, including the person who designed the mood-lit, amenities-stocked cabin, say that’s precisely the point.

Each of the three low-cost airlines setting up shop at SFO has promised that there is room in the market for all of them to compete, and analysts say the distinction between each will be the amenities.

Virgin America appears to be riding this wave, cashing in on the desire among Generations X and Y to fly with benefits.

The low-cost carrier concept took off most notably in the 1970s with the success of Southwest Airlines, but analysts are finding that more and more people are yearning for the snacks, pillows and other amenities found primarily on the major, so-called legacy airlines.

Aviation consultant Michael Boyd has said that Virgin America appears to have the most amenities that would draw new customers, with entertainment systems and mood lighting aimed at capturing customers from Generation Y in particular — those who check e-mail at least five times a day and send instant messages more than they talk on the phone.

“No-frills is not good enough anymore for the American public, it seems,” Boyd said.

Onboard, the amenities appear closer to those of a lounge than airplanes, with “dusk” and “dawn” settings for mood lighting and seats designed by companies commissioned by the world’s most expensive car manufacturers.

Instant messaging is also available, which delighted and amused San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom during a sneak peek at the airplane last month.

These amenities are most closely rivaled by JetBlue Airways, which also offers seat-back entertainment systems.

Adam Wells, Virgin America’s cabin designer, said he took inspiration from some of the best “ground-based entertainment” he could find — clubs, lounges and restaurants — and tried to copy that feeling and style into the aircraft.

Still, price is often the deal-breaker when it comes to customers choosing one airline over another.

Boyd said there is a smaller percentage of people — typically baby boomers — who are not interested in the slightest in instant messaging or music capabilities. In this instance, Southwest Airlines could come out on top for people more inclined to look for low fares than anything else.

“They’ve got a big name and a good hold on the market,” Boyd said. “They’re not going away.”

Hoopla, red carpet greet SFO’s newest airline

Thirteen years ago in a publicity stunt, Sir Richard Branson had to escape from Alcatraz from a paraglider. His future jaunts to and from The City by the Bay, however, should be less of a hassle now that Virgin America is open for business at San Francisco International Airport.

A crowd estimated at 500 people thick — including media, airport employees and curious onlookers — cheered the simultaneous landing Wednesday of Virgin America’s first two flights from New York and Los Angeles.

The party started in earnest in New York, where late-night comedian Stephen Colbert was scheduled to appear. Though he missed the take-off festivities due to traffic in the Big Apple, he promised to christen one of the airline’s brand-new Airbus A320s on his national radio show.

Bad weather conditions at John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York delayed the dual landing by 15 minutes, making the aircraft fashionably late to the airport’s biggest party in years.

A water-cannon salute welcomed the two airplanes. Passengers — many of whom were Virgin America and Virgin Group employees, guests and entertainers, such as DJ Samantha Ronson — were greeted by ecstatic San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom on the red carpet.

Passengers on the historic flight were treated to champagne and a low-flying view of Yosemite National Park — so close they could see Half Dome — on the way in, passenger and Virgin Group employee Jonathan Peachey said.

British billionaire Branson, a minority shareholder in the local airline, arrived in the flashy, highly media-friendly way he has become famous for, toting a large American flag and waving to hollering onlookers with CEO Fred Reid from the cockpit.

Newsom, noting San Francisco Giants slugger Barry Bonds’ historic record-breaking home run the night before, said The City was already celebrating Barry Bonds Day in honor of that event.

But given the arrival of the airline, he opted to instead make August “Barry Bonds Month” and proclaim Wednesday “Virgin America Day.”

JFK and LAX will be the only two destinations offered by Virgin America until late next month, when service to Dulles International Airport in Washington, D.C. begins. Service to Las Vegas will begin shortly thereafter.

Branson said Wednesday that snazzy low-cost carriers appear to be the wave of the aviation future.

“These major airlines are going bankrupt, losing money,” Branson said. “It’s time the public had a real choice in the matter.”

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