In a move that could trigger lower fares on one of the nation's busiest routes, a new airline inspired by British billionaire Richard Branson is making Los Angeles one of its first stops.
Virgin America plans to announce today that it will begin flying passengers Aug. 8 with five flights daily from Los Angeles to San Francisco and five return trips.
The decision is good news for Southern California travelers who can expect lower fares -- at least temporarily -- to several popular destinations.
Flights between San Francisco International Airport 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 to New York and Washington, airline sources said.
Virgin America plans to serve as many as 10 cities within a year of operation and as many as 30 cities within five years. The cities include San Diego, San Jose, Dallas, Chicago, Atlanta and Boston.
Tickets are expected to go on sale today on the airline's website, www.virginamerica.com, with promotional fares for flights from LAX to New York's John F. Kennedy International Airport starting at $139 one-way.
The decision to launch its service at LAX will probably 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 ones.
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 effect will be, but fares for the LAX-SFO flights are relatively low because of the competition. 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 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 -- United, American and Delta -- 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.
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.
Virgin America is hoping to duplicate the success of another Branson upstart in Australia. Virgin Blue, started in 2000 as a no-frills, low-cost carrier, is now that country's second-largest airline.
Branson, a maverick businessman who has interests in the recording industry and cellphones, had been pushing hard to start an airline in the U.S. but relinquished control of Virgin America because of congressional concerns with foreign ownership. Branson still has partial ownership of the airline.
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