I’ll be the first to admit that I was definitely betting against Philadelphia scoring service from Virgin America in their announcement yesterday. There were a couple other destinations on their "short list" which seemed more likely to me. Alas, I was wrong, and the carrier will be launching five daily frequencies starting in April.
As part of the launch release Virgin America pulled no punches, describing their competition in less than flattering terms. Said company CEO David Cush:
Travelers deserve more options than just the typical legacy airline cattle car, and we hope our unique brand of low fares and inventive service will be a breath of fresh air for Philadelphians.
I didn’t expect Philadelphia to be the new market based mostly on the fact that transcons are expensive and it generally takes a lot of capacity to compete in those markets; once daily service, especially between larger cities, is often frowned upon by customers. Virgin America is coming in big, however, adding three flights to Los Angeles which will increase the daily frequencies from 7 to 10, a reasonably significant capacity upgrade. Similarly, the frequencies on the San Francisco route will increase from 8 to 10 with the two new Virgin flights.
But are there enough passengers – profitable ones at that – to make the service work? Virgin seems to think so, suggesting that roughly half of the passengers on each of those routes takes a connecting flight rather than a nonstop option. So maybe there are enough people looking for nonstop options; the question is whether they’re profitable. Time will tell.
With all the hating that goes on against US Airways, this route might seem like a perfect assault. But attacking them at Philadelphia with only a couple non-stop destinations seems unlikely to be the way to go. Even Southwest, which attacked many more routes, is pulling back in their assault there, suggesting that US Airways is reasonably stable and willing to fight their competitors.
One thing it might do, however, is convince US Airways to compete on pricing for the routes. A one-way fare is currently $850 on US from Phillly to LA; the new numbers with Virgin in the market look to be a bit lower:
Interestingly, while US hasn’t been matching Delta fares on the route (or United Airlines on flights to San Francisco) they appear to be taking the Virgin entry into the market a bit more seriously. They aren’t completely matching the fare, but they are much closer, at least for San Francisco. Apparently they’re banking on their frequent flyers or the more frequent schedules demanding a $20ish premium for the route.
For Los Angeles, however, the price disparity remains, at least as of this morning.
It is also worth noting that elites in the US Airways Dividend Miles program can confirm that $850 fare into the first class cabin at the time of ticketing. Virgin is selling their first class cabin – admittedly MUCH nicer than that of the US Airways A321s – for about $1,000, a premium for elites, though still $200 less than the non-elite upgrade fare from US. Both are significantly higher than Delta’s first class fare on the route.
What does it all mean? I have no idea. But there are enough interesting bits at play here that it is worth watching. Oh, and prices on some of the inaugural flights are still pretty reasonable, so I might be headed to Philly for some fun in early April.