Startup airline Virgin America's plunge into the low-cost air travel market this week prompted fare cuts by two major rivals on Friday, holding out the prospect of a price war on several popular routes -- at least until the new carrier's low introductory offerings expire in November.
Virgin America, based in Burlingame, began selling tickets Thursday for travel beginning Aug. 8 through early next year. The carrier is offering very low initial fares, customary when an airline is promoting something special --
which, in Virgin America's case, is its birth.
The new airline's low fares were matched Friday by JetBlue Airways and Southwest Airlines, offering airline passengers a good chance to save money on flights between the Bay Area and New York and Los Angeles.
The cheap tickets on JetBlue and Southwest are for travel that begins on or after Aug. 8 and ends by Nov. 14, when the busy Thanksgiving travel season kicks in, followed by the almost-as-busy Christmas travel season. During those periods, airlines can get higher prices from holiday travelers.
Virgin America offers a $139 coach class fare for a one-way trip from its home airport, San Francisco International Airport, to John F. Kennedy International Airport. That was matched on Friday by JetBlue, which calls JFK home, and has pioneered amenities that Virgin America will be offering, such as leather seats and TV seatback screens. JetBlue's lowest published fare on that route had been $179.
Both airlines add fees and some restrictions to the prices. In addition, the cheapest fares are not available on every flight. Virgin America's one-way San Francisco-to-New York fare goes as high as $199, while JetBlue charges up to $264 on the route.
Virgin America's $389 one-way first class fare from SFO to JFK stands alone, as JetBlue doesn't offer first class.
Also on Friday, discount carrier Southwest matched Virgin America's $44 one-way coach class fare before taxes and fees between the Bay Area and Los Angeles International Airport. Southwest's Oakland-to-Los Angeles fare ranges up to $124, while Virgin America's high reaches $119.
Southwest will not begin flying from SFO until Aug. 28, but the $44 fare will apply before then on a comparable route between LAX and Oakland International Airport, where it is flying now. Southwest's lowest published fare on the Bay Area-Los Angeles route had been $49.
Virgin America's $149 one-way first class fare to LAX will also stand alone, as Southwest doesn't offer first class.
JetBlue said it will also equal Virgin America's $139 coach class fares between JFK and LAX, a route Virgin America plans to begin flying in autumn.
JetBlue, based in Forest Hills, N.Y., began offering service from SFO in May, and that was partly in anticipation of the expected transcontinental competition from Virgin America, JetBlue's founder David Neeleman said then.
For its part, Southwest accelerated its return to SFO after a five-year absence in part to take on Virgin America, Southwest CEO Gary Kelly told The Chronicle this spring.
"We're keeping a close eye on them,'' Southwest spokesman Chris Mainz said Friday about Virgin America. "We will compete very vigorously. I think you'll find we'll continue to be the low-fare leader.''
Southwest's price cuts on selected competitive routes follow several fare increases in the past year. The latest added from $1 to $10 to one-way flights nationwide last week.
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