Virgin America, the new California-based low-cost airline partly owned by British business magnate Richard Branson, will ask the Federation Aviation Administration on Thursday for two gates and eight arrival slots at O’Hare International Airport.
The addition of Virgin to O’Hare would increase competition for business customers at an airport dominated by United Airlines and American Airlines, according to President and CEO David Cush. Virgin wants to make four trips a day to San Francisco and four to Los Angeles.
“Our belief is because of that lack of competition, you have higher fares at O’Hare than you otherwise would have, and perhaps lower levels of service than you otherwise would have,” Cush said in a meeting with the Chicago Sun-Times editorial board. He noted that only three low-cost carriers now serve O’Hare, with a total of 12 daily departures.
Cush was in the city last week to meet with civic leaders and editorial boards to sell Virgin’s Chicago plan.
Serves primary airports
Virgin hopes for an answer from the FAA by mid- to late-June, so it can start flying out of Chicago in November. The airline would add up to 60 local jobs.
Founded last August, Virgin bills itself as a “different kind of low-fare carrier,” with a young fleet of Airbus planes and upscale amenities such as on-demand food and drink service, the ability to send text messages between seats, “mood-lighting” and standard plug power outlets at each seat.
Virgin serves primary airports such as Los Angeles, instead of secondary airports like Long Beach, Calif., and San Francisco rather than Oakland. Cush said Virgin is targeting O’Hare, and not Midway, since it is focused on business customers and can get higher fares at O’Hare. The fares at O’Hare are about 33 percent higher than the fares at Midway going to the same destination, Virgin says.
Cush said Virgin fares are higher than Southwest but lower than similar trips on United and American.
United spokeswoman Robin Urbanski said that United’s fares “are always competitive” and United offers an extensive route network, more comfortable Economy Plus seating and loyalty programs, all of which appeal to business travelers.
“We welcome the competition,” said American spokeswoman Mary Frances Fagan.
Virgin America is distinct from Virgin Atlantic, which has been flying from Chicago to London out of O’Hare since last year.
Branson’s Virgin Group is a minor investor in Virgin America, which is U.S.-owned and operated. Its lead investors are L.A.-based Black Canyon Capital and New York-based Cyrus Capital Partners. The son of Chicago Sun-Times publisher Cyrus Freidheim, Stephen Freidheim, is the managing partner of Cyrus Capital.