Virgin takes off while competitors lay low 

While most of the airline industry keeps one finger on the ejectbutton, Virgin America continues rocketing planes off the busiest tarmac in the Bay Area.

The rookie airline announced an expansion of its summer schedule with additional flights to and from San Francisco International Airport — including four daily flights to Seattle and another two dailies from Washington Dulles and John F. Kennedy international airports. The new flights will take off within the next two months, airline officials said.

The expansion comes just as rival airlines look to ground planes, consolidate operations or fold altogether — wearied by soaring fuel costs and general economic turbulence.

Industry experts say Burlingame-based Virgin America — the lone airline headquartered in California — is spending some of the $100 million it banked last month from investors and is also capitalizing on a much less congested sky.

"We’re actually insulated on a number of fronts from what is going on in the industry," said Virgin America spokeswoman Abby Lunardini. "We’re the best financed start-up airline in U.S. history and our brand new fleet is on average 30 percent more fuel efficient than other fleets flying domestically."

Industry experts say the airline’s rapid growth recalls the emergence of JetBlue at the onset of the decade. The airline soared during the dark days surrounding the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks — offering low-fare flights while the others were hiking prices.

"[JetBlue] started in a market where prices were high and people were very disappointed with airline service in general," said analyst Robert Mann, president of RW Mann and Co. "This is a good time for [Virgin America] to expand."

Currently, Virgin America offers 70 flights per day out of seven cities and plans to have 84 flights total by the end of June, Lunardini said. The company plans to fly to 30 cities within the next four years and hire 1,000 employees by the end of the year, she said.

maldax@examiner.com

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