Virgin America goes for the snowbirds


Apparently Virgin America has some slack in their aircraft utilization for the coming winter schedule. That’s actually typical; many airlines reduce flights in the winter as demand decreases. Virgin America, however, is using the winter season as an opportunity to try to build up a couple snowbird markets. The carrier announced daily seasonal service between New York’s JFK airport and Ft. Lauderdale as well as 4x weekly service between Boston & Las Vegas. There will also be two additional weekly flights between Las Vegas and JFK, keeping that aircraft busy for the whole week.

New seasonal routes for Virgin America
Map generated by the Great Circle Mapper - copyright © Karl L. Swartz.

The FLL-JFK route does appear to be taking advantage of some slack in the current schedule of aircraft in and out of South Florida and there is already a presence at JFK so expenses at that end should not be too significant. Still, this move comes on the heels of Frontier announcing service between Miami and New York City (albeit LaGuardia) and there’s also the incumbent operators JetBlue (9x daily)and Delta (4x daily) (plus American to Miami and United out of Newark). There is plenty of demand for service in the NYC-MIA/FLL market – more than 2 million passengers flew it over the 12 month period ending June 2014 – but there is also stiff competition. And it isn’t like Virgin made a huge splash putting seats on sale when they showed up. A $99 one-way rate is nice but unlikely to shift a ton of passengers there way. Especially with only 1x daily service.

For Boston-Las Vegas the only non-stop competition is JetBlue (2x daily) and Virgin is clearly targeting leisure passengers with its 4x weekly service Thursday-Monday.

So, what gives??

Virgin America says in its S-1 filing that the goal is to attract more business customers. And I suppose that the JFK-FLL route is one of the “key leisure” destinations that is also important to offering a well rounded operation which attracts those same customers?

We target the business community by providing a premium travel service between our focus cities and many of the most important business destinations in North America, as well as key leisure destinations that we believe are important to business travelers when flying for leisure travel.

Because nothing impresses a high-value customer like limited options and a short-term horizon for service.

In total this is about 15 hours of extra flying per day. That’s roughly one plane’s worth of activity. Not a huge investment but also not likely to yield huge results. And with the high competition in the NYC-Florida market it seems unlikely this will drive great yields, but, again, the costs are relatively low to find out.

UPDATE: Also during the same period the carrier will be trimming Chicago O’hare service down to 1x daily to each of the California hubs. Currently the service is 2x daily. Hardly seems like a business-traveler focused move there.

Maybe this is just the tipping point Virgin America needs to shore up some revenue and make a big splash in advance of the expected IPO. Or perhaps someone in Burlingame got a hold of Delta’s dartboard. I certainly don’t think these routes make much sense in the competitive landscape but maybe I’m wrong. We’ll see soon enough.

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Seth Miller

I'm Seth, also known as the Wandering Aramean. I was bit by the travel bug 30 years ago and there's no sign of a cure. I fly ~200,000 miles annually; these are my stories. You can connect with me on Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn and .

7 Comments

  1. If you look at the times of these flights, it just looks like they are using existing planes and swapping positions between FLL and JFK.

    JFK- FLL: depart 8:00am and arrive 11:05am daily.
    FLL- JFK: depart 9:15am and arrive 11:55am daily.

    Looks like they are using 4 hours of each planes downtime, and then probably moving the planes to SFO/LAX. Its not a single tail running both legs.

    1. Definitely not the same plane doing the FLL-JFK-FLL turn; I know that. But it is still an aircraft utilization play in the end, squeezing just a bit more flying out of the fleet in an effort to grab some profits. I almost get the BOS-LAS route; not a lot of competition and it is a nice weekend run. But the JFK-FLL market has a ton of capacity. And that’s before you expand to the whole NYC-FLL/MIA market.

      Anyone can sell seats if priced cheap enough. But why bother if the yields are going to be so low??

  2. Any capacity in that market during the winter SHOULD reap rewards. I think its a good idea to familiarize the snowbird market with the product, as its better than most of whats flying on that route right now, unless you get the AA INTL config. I think Virgin never took off on the east coast because you couldn’t get anywhere here on them. This can’t HURT. I just think this will disappear in May.

    1. There are 9x daily flights on JetBlue, each offering more pitch, faster (and free!) WiFi, free TV and free snacks. What about the 1x VX flight is better than that??

      I don’t know that it will actually “hurt” really as the opportunity cost here is pretty low. And it does give them an opportunity to make passengers familiar with the product. I’m just struggling to believe that this is a smart business move.

  3. The complaint I have heard from various people is that Virgin America “only has 1 flight a day”. They definitely seem to need a strategy.

  4. I understand not wanting to park a plane (or 2) at JFK for several hours, but jumping into the highly competitive snow bird market just isn’t the way to do this. They are really screwed from the outset because they have very little (practically zero) connecting flow, and the primary O/D airports for these markets are LGA and MIA. I guess the folks at VX decided the next best alternative was just fine, when clearly it isn’t. Any number of alternatives would serve them better…maybe swapping 1-2 LGA-DAL frequencies to JFK-DAL, then use the spare slots at LGA to offer proper NYC to S. Florida service. They also could have gotten creative and done JFK-DEN, then let the plane continue to SFO, JFK-DEN is a route with little competition. SFO-DEN is a little tougher, but at least its business traffic, not ma pa kettle looking for $49 one ways to Ft. Lauderdale. I won’t even broach the reduction of SFO-ORD to 1x daily. Bottom Line: I think there is a dart board in route planning at VX, and its getting a lot of use.

  5. Bottom Line: I think there is a dart board in route planning at VX, and its getting a lot of use.

    There’s always been one. Remember SFO-YYZ?

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