D/FW Gives Support to Planned Virgin America Airline

In hopes of someday landing the planned airline Virgin America to fill empty gates in Terminal E, Dallas/Fort Worth Airport voiced support Thursday for the carrier to begin flying this year.

But there's no telling whether Virgin and its proposed low fares would come to the Metroplex, according to airport officials, airline executives and industry experts.

"I don't want to build expectations that are not achievable," said Joe Lopano, D/FW's executive vice president of marketing and terminal management. "If we got a flight to San Francisco, I'd have a parade out on the runway. We'll start out with whatever they give to us."

The planned San Francisco-based airline, partially owned by British investor Richard Branson, asked the Transportation Department last month for permission to fly in the United States.

It listed 35 airports, including D/FW, as potential destinations. The airline has not said how often it would fly, only that its first route would go from San Francisco to New York.

The request for certification has been criticized by other legacy airlines, including Fort Worth-based American and Houston-based Continental, and the two largest pilots associations.

They want more disclosure on the financial relationship between Branson, who through various companies holds a 25 percent stake in Virgin America, and the two U.S.-based investors that own the remaining 75 percent.

U.S. law prohibits a foreign investor from owning more than a quarter of a domestic airline.

"Our filing says you need to confirm and make sure that Virgin America meets the requirement for a domestic carrier," said Tim Wagner, a spokesman for American. "It really is not any more difficult than that."

Branson also owns London-based airline Virgin Atlantic. But the two airlines are not related, said Stacy Geagan, a Virgin America spokeswoman.

"The only similarity we have with Virgin Atlantic is we've both licensed the same brand name, Virgin," she said.

Virgin America is not seeking a code-share agreement with Virgin Atlantic, Geagan said. That arrangement allows airlines to sell seats on each other's flights and have Virgin America feed passengers into Virgin Atlantic's broad overseas network. Virgin Atlantic flies to London from nine U.S. airports, including San Francisco, New York Kennedy and Newark.

Rivals contesting Virgin America's petition don't want any more competition, Geagan said.

D/FW Airport officials hope that Virgin America could take one or more gates at Terminal E by the end of the year. The terminal was left largely empty when Delta Air Lines closed its hub in early 2005, going from 22 gates to four.

The airport could serve as a midway point, offering nonstop flights to San Francisco and New York from D/FW.

"Such a major domestic new entrant can provide healthy competition for both legacy carriers and existing [low-cost carriers] at D/FW and across America," Jeff Fegan, the airport's chief executive, wrote in a letter to the Transportation Department.

Henry Harteveldt, an airline analyst at Forrester Research in San Francisco, said D/FW's support wasn't surprising. Several other airports, including San Francisco and Orlando, Fla., have also publicly supported Virgin's entrance.

"In this case, look at D/FW as a pimp with runways -- they're trying to push a product here," he said. "Most airports generally will never oppose a filing that wants to serve the airport. [D/FW] would only oppose the filing if [Virgin America] wanted to serve Love Field rather than D/FW."

D/FW said in its letter that a financial incentive ranging from $12.2 million to $22.2 million is still on the table. It is based on Virgin taking anywhere from 10 to 22 gates, the letter said. One gate could support about seven flights a day.

Lopano is planning his third meeting with Virgin officials, in San Francisco on Tuesday. He first met with company officials when they were operating out of a loft office in New York City in December 2004. "They've indicated that D/FW is a good market to them, and that doesn't surprise me," he said.

Terry Trippler, an airline analyst with Cheapseats.com in Minneapolis, said that D/FW is attractive to Virgin because of all the gates available, but that it would be a difficult market in which to compete with American and its 84 percent share. "I don't see anybody making a dent in American's fortress hub at D/FW, even Richard Branson, and he's done a lot," Trippler said.

Virgin will begin with 33 new Airbus planes that boast enhanced fuel efficiency and can fly farther.

"If Virgin America has video and audio on-demand or even live TV, that could create a huge sucking sound in Terminals A, B and C, at least on the routes that Virgin America flies," Harteveldt said.

"We would like to begin operations in 2006," Geagan said. "However, the Department of Transportation certification is the pacing item. So at this point, we don't know."

Fort Worth Star Telegram

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