Virgin SFO takes off at last

It took three years of assembling hundreds of millions in financial backing and satisfying the Federal Aviation Administration that Virgin America was not controlled by its 25 percent foreign ownership, but Richard Branson’s flashy, new low-fare airline is finally taking off from its San Francisco International Airport home base.

The first Virgin Airbus A320s from New York’s John F. Kennedy International Airport and Los Angeles International Airport landed at SFO on Wednesday, laden with VIPs. The arrival hoopla began a schedule of two daily New York flights and five daily Los Angeles flights. Virgin also begins SFO routes to Washington, D.C., and Las Vegas this autumn.

Early winners in the new airline race are Bay Area passengers, who get Virgin America’s introductory $44 coach fare between SFO and Los Angeles International Airport and $139 between SFO and New York until November. When Virgin began selling tickets in mid-July, SFO discount rivals JetBlue Airways and the Southwest Airlines quickly matched the bargain fares.

Increased price competition out of SFO is likely to persist for some time to come, somewhat to the dismay of rival budget air carriers and industry analysts. However, Virgin’s 19 daily U.S. flights — although already fully booked for the first few weeks — hold far too few total passengers to seriously endanger competitors.

U.S. airlines sought to escape drowning in red ink after the 2001 economic shakeout by cutting costs with a reduced number of flights. As air travel volume gradually climbed back to pre-Sept. 11 levels, passengers found themselves scrambling for a reduced availability of seats. Virgin America’s debut at SFO will help ease these pressures on Bay Area passenger capacity, although admittedly it could also contribute to congestion and delays at theincreasingly crowded airport.

Another significant public benefit to the Bay Area will be the mostly local 3,000 to 5,000 jobs Virgin expects to hire. Some 500 have already been employed, almost half pilots and flight attendants.

As early as 2004, an independent study by the Bay Area Economic Forum estimated that an SFO-based airline operating 70 weekly domestic flights would generate approximately $241 million in regional business revenues translating to jobs and profits. No wonder Mayor Gavin Newsom is rolling out the red carpet for Virgin America by lighting San Francisco landmarks red throughout the weekend — from Coit Tower and Union Square to the Ferry Building.

California, San Francisco and San Mateo County officials deserve our praise for teaming so effectively to overcome five rival cities and win Virgin America’s flight base for SFO and its corporate headquarters for Burlingame. One thing is for sure — if buzz is what’s required for getting a new discount airline off the ground these days, flamboyant entrepreneur and champion hot-air balloonist Richard Branson is just the man who can deliver.

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