New Branson airline offers S.F.-L.A. flights

LOS ANGELES — In a move that could trigger lower fares on one of the United States' busiest routes, a new airline inspired by British billionaire Richard Branson is making Los Angeles one of its first stops.

Virgin America is expected to announce Thursday that it will begin flying passengers Aug. 8 with five flights daily from Los Angeles to San Francisco and five return trips.

Flights between San Francisco and Los Angeles International Airport are expected to start at $44 one-way, or about half the cost of other carriers.

The airline is expected to quickly follow the launch of the San Francisco flights with nonstop daily service from Los Angeles to New York and Washington, D.C., airline sources said. It plans to serve as many as 10 cities within a year of operation and up to 30 cities within five years.

Some of the cities include San Diego, San Jose, Dallas, Chicago, Atlanta and Boston.

Tickets are expected to go on sale on its Web site,, Thursday with promotional fares for flights from Los Angeles International Airport to New York's John F. Kennedy Airport starting at $139 one-way.

The decision to launch its service at LAX is likely to surprise analysts and airline industry officials who have been expecting the San Francisco-based airline to first offer flights from San Francisco to New York before gradually expanding its network to LAX.

But the Los Angeles-San Francisco route is considered one of the more profitable and busiest.

Three major U.S. carriers alone account for 29 flights a day between LAX and SFO, and several low cost carriers offer a dozen more flights connecting nearby smaller airports such as Long Beach and Oakland.

It's too soon to know what the impact would be, but fares for the LAX-SFO flights are relatively low because of the competition and carriers are flying planes that for the most part are full.

"I'm not sure if it would start a fare war but it does give consumers another option," said Michael Boyd, president of airline consulting firm The Boyd Group in Evergreen, Colo. For consumers "having more airlines is good, having less is not."

Major airlines have dominated flights from LAX to San Francisco with United Airlines alone offering 17 daily flights to San Francisco. On Wednesday, the lowest round trip fare among the three major carriers that fly to San Francisco from LAX was $204 with a two week advance purchase.

Virgin America plans to offer five daily flights to San Francisco from LAX before adding two nonstop LAX-New York flights Aug. 29. In October, the airline plans to add two daily flights from LAX to Washington, D.C.

The airline is touting itself as the "next generation" low cost airline with onboard amenities rivaling some of the best in the industry.

Virgin America will fly new Airbus A319 and A320 planes with economy and first-class seating. In the economy section, each leather seat will be equipped with 9-inch video screens offering on-demand movies, 18 television channels including ESPN and CNN, and video games.

The first-class section will feature "massage" seats that can recline to 165 degrees and have about double the legroom of economy seats.

A first-class seat on a flight from LAX to New York is expected to start at $389 one-way, or about the cost of a walk-up economy fare on other major airlines.

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