DALLAS — Two-year-old airline Virgin America touched down Wednesday in Florida, marking one of its most ambitious expansion moves yet with a lavish welcoming ceremony that included Virgin Group Ltd. founder and billionaire Richard Branson.
Virgin took a cautious first step into Florida — just two daily nonstop flights apiece between Fort Lauderdale and both Los Angeles and San Francisco.
The move could foreshadow even more head-to-head competition between Virgin and other airlines, including Delta, Southwest and JetBlue.
Virgin flies mostly between the coasts, from four spots in California to New York, Washington and Boston — routes popular with business travelers. Fort Lauderdale doesn’t fit the profile of a typical Virgin America city.
“We know we need warm-weather sites,” CEO David Cush said in an interview this week. “This will help balance out our network.”
Cush acknowledged that Californians, especially in the San Francisco Bay Area, are more likely to consider Hawaii than Florida for a beach vacation, but he believes the airline can change that thinking. Fort Lauderdale is contributing $100,000 to a Virgin marketing campaign aimed at Californians, he said.
Virgin’s closest rival on the new routes may be JetBlue, which began nonstops between Fort Lauderdale and San Francisco on Tuesday.
“Virgin America has a good product, but we’re confident our customers will continue to fly JetBlue,” said JetBlue spokeswoman Alison Croyle.
The list of Virgin competitors is likely to grow.
Airline consultant Robert Mann said Virgin’s service from California to Florida is a good way to use its aircraft wisely on potentially lucrative flights. If the service succeeds, he said, Virgin will expand to include Florida flights from its bases in the Northeast, including New York’s Kennedy Airport.
That would pit Virgin against Delta Air Lines Inc., the world’s biggest airline company, which already flies to Fort Lauderdale from Kennedy and LaGuardia airports in New York. Delta also flies there from Los Angeles.
Other big operators at Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport include Southwest Airlines Co., the nation’s largest discount carrier, and AirTran.
Virgin advertises fares from California starting at $104, although it’s not saying how many seats it will sell at the cheapest price.
Kent Landers, a spokesman for Delta, said his airline offers a vastly larger network of connecting flights and “will vigorously compete” with Virgin on price, although he couldn’t say whether Delta had matched Virgin’s cheapest fares.
Because of stiff competition and the presence of low-cost carriers, airlines regularly discount fares to Florida destinations.
Airlines compete in other ways too. Continental pointed out it still serves free meals in coach, while Virgin charges for them.
Virgin takes a $15 fee for each checked bag. Southwest and JetBlue let the first bag fly free.