Virgin America has announced tentative plans to create its first base outside California, saying it would like to add 18 daily departures to five destinations at Dallas' capacity-controlled Love Field.
The carrier announced on Wednesday morning what its flight schedule would look like if it is successful in winning control of two gates at the close-to-downtown Dallas airport. The gates are currently owned by American, but that carrier must give them up as part of a settlement with the Department of Justice (DOJ) that cleared the way for its merger with US Airways.
If it gains access to the gates, Virgin America would add service from Love Field to five major business destinations: New York LaGuardia, Washington Reagan National (DCA), Chicago O'Hare, San Francisco and Los Angeles.
Not coincidentally, the flight rights that Virgin America would use for the LaGuardia and DCA flights also came from American as part of the divestiture agreement with Justice. Virgin America announced it successfully bid for slots at those capacity-controlled airports earlier this year.
As for Love Field, Virgin America has not been confirmed as the recipient for the divestiture, despite announcing its intentions for the gates.
"The reason that we're making the announcement is that we think that the next action DOJ is going to take in enforcing the consent order with American is on the gates," Virgin America CEO David Cush says to Today in the Sky. "So we think the time is right for making this announcement."
Virgin America's proactive schedule announcement follows a similar, more-aggressive move made by Delta. That carrier, which currently is leasing the gates that American must give up, announced an ambitious expansion plan for Love Field. Delta has even put those planned flights up for sale through its booking system.However, Delta's ability to add those flights hinges on maintaining access to those gates.
The proactive schedule announcements from both Virgin America and Delta appear to be aimed at putting pressure on the Justice Department to award the gates.
"We think in all honesty our case is overwhelmingly compelling," Cush says to Today in the Sky.
"It appears that the DOJ is prepared to move on the gate divestitures," Cush says when asked why the carrier chose to make this morning's announcement. "That's what's really driving the timing. We really think that's the next step."
And Cush dismissed the idea that Delta could receive consideration for the Love Field gates.
He says the Justice Department's consent order regarding the gates "is very clear that all assets divested by American need to go to low-cost carriers. As far as we're concerned Delta's not even a player in this matter."
"I think the sooner we get this wrapped up the better," Cush adds, saying that would allow Delta to "reaccommodate the passengers they've sold on these schedules" it has announced from Love Field.
Virgin America's Love Field proposal would have it start flights to LaGuardia, Washington National, Los Angeles and San Francisco in October 2014. That's when the Wright Amendment that currently imposes distance restrictions on Love Field flights is set to expire. Virgin America also would add flights to Chicago O'Hare in "early 2015."
The carrier says it would start with three or four daily round-trip flights to each city before going to four daily flights on all Love Field routes — except Chicago — in 2015. Virgin America would fly two daily round-trip flights to Chicago.
Virgin America already flies from Dallas/Fort Worth (DFW), offering service to its main bases in San Francisco and Los Angeles. But the airline says it would shift those flights to Love Field if it's successful in securing space there.
Cush is "happy with the performance of our service at DFW from San Francisco and Los Angeles," but says Virgin America would face "structural disadvantages" in competing with American on other routes from DFW, where American is by far the dominant carrier.
He acknowledges the Love Field plan would mark an important evolution for Virgin America, which so far has stuck almost exclusively to routes to or from its two main bases in San Francisco and Los Angeles.
"We always knew that at some point we going to have to branch beyond what our current network structure is," Cush says. "There are only so many long-haul, trans-con markets that can be supported with nonstop service in San Francisco and Los Angeles. So this is just a very logical way to go in and take the next step in our network development."
He wouldn't speculate on what Virgin America would do if it does not win the gates at Love Field.
"We're not really focused on that right now," Cush says. "The only thing that we have made clear to people is that we will not operate these (non-California) flights into DFW because we're sure that we would have a difficult time there. So we're not really talking about what would we do if Love Field doesn't happen. All we're saying is that DFW is not an option for those flights."
"That being said, if in the end it's not Love Field, it will be somewhere else," Cush adds. "We're confident we're going to prevail here, because we think it's not only a solution that's in line with that the Department of Justice is looking for — in terms of preserving competition — but we think it's a good solution for the city of Dallas and the citizens of Dallas. But in the end … if something doesn't work, we've got plenty of other options to go in and do something like this."