Virgin America Pops DCA’s Perimeter Rule, Launching Flights from San Francisco
Why is this such a very special inaugural flight? Prior to 2000, federal regulations dictated that all flights into and out of Reagan National Airport (DCA) had to be within a radius of 1,250 miles of the airport, known as a “perimeter rule”. In 2000, Congress passed an exemption to these regulations that allowed 12 daily flights to exceed that distance for 5 airlines to 6 destinations. Under the FAA Modernization and Reform Act of 2012, 8 additional exemptions for airlines and specificed routes were granted. Among them, 4 were for the 4 legacy carriers serving DCA to convert one short-haul round trip to a long-distance trip, but the other 4 exemptions were granted to new routes. One of those new routes were for Virgin America to fly to San Francisco. This allows the first flight to operate directly from Northern California to the Reagan, and as noted by Virgin America CEO David Cush, “We are pleased to have the opportunity to bring our unique brand of service to this underserved route – and to better connect one of the world’s leading economies to our nation’s capital”.
The introduction of this new flight is Virgin America’s 19th destination in consistent growth since their first flight in August of 2007. The current fleet of 10 Airbus A319s and 42 Airbus A320s (with an additional 30 A320s and 30 A320neos on order) provides it’s “low-fare, high-quality” service to the 19 destinations in the USA and Mexico.
Once through security and arrival at the gate, it was evident that this would be a special flight. Mixed in with the treats and light breakfast were President Barack Obama and Governor Mitt Romney – or rather, impersonators Reggie Brown and Jim Gossett mingling with the crowd, taking pictures and making political digs at each other. As the election year theme of the flight was “Both Sides of the Aisle Win”, with the organization Rock the Vote, the largest non-partisan voter registration organization in the country and its President, Heather Smith also onboard.
An hour before boarding, initial speeches were given by San Francisco Airport COO Tryg McCoy, Virgin America CEO David Cush, and State Senator Leland Yee. All the speeches largely focused on the importance of linking San Francisco and the nation’s capital directly and the process that has had to be followed in order to obtain the route and the cooperation between San Francisco Airport, the State of California and Virgin America in order to secure the route. President Obama (Reggie Brown) then cut the ribbon to welcome the passengers aboard the special flight. President Obama and Governor Romney (Jim Gossett) welcomed each passenger through the door and boarding proceeded. While boarding continued, preparations were made in the cockpit by the two senior captains flying the route, Captains Ray Renshaw and Patrick Loftus. Each passenger was greeted in their seat by a “Rock the Vote” t-shirt and a set of Virgin America headphones. An Airbus A319-112, N528VA “Fog Cutter”, was the aircraft assigned for the trip to DCA and at exactly 8:05am, pushed back from the gate and headed to runway 1L for the departure. The flight was routed over the heart of the US to the landing at Reagan National.
In-flight festivities allowed for the presidential candidates to say a few words to the passengers and the serving of cocktails like “Air Force One” and “Camp David Cocktail”.
The presentation by Heather Smith, President of Rock the Vote showed the initiative in conjunction with Virgin America to sign up young voters for the current election. Passengers on board all Virgin America flights are able to register to vote using the Virgin America “Red” entertainment system.
Apart from the festivities mid-flight, NYCAviation was able to conduct an in-flight one-on-one interview with Virgin America CEO David Cush that is paraphrased for length:
NYCA: Thank you for the opportunity to speak with you. Why is Virgin America so successful in these challenging economic times?
DC: The majority of it comes down to the product that we offer. We believe that by giving the public the higher quality product at the lower cost gives us the edge over the other low cost airlines.
NYCA: There has been steady growth of Virgin America since the initial 2007 start. Do you expect this to continue in the foreseeable future?
DC: We are in a bit of a lull at present. We have taken the last new delivery of the A320 for this year. Next year, 2013 will see us take one more A320 delivery and then in about July of 2013, we will start additional growth at that point. Following that we will start bringing more aircraft into the fleet, including the new A320neo and the A320 sharklets.
NYCA: Speaking of the A320neo, how much does this mean to Virgin America’s plans?
DC: We are very excited about the A320neo. Being the launch customer for the aircraft is something that management all the way to Richard Branson pushed for. The fuel savings and additional range that the A320neo will give us will allow us to increase capacity on some routes that currently can only handle the A319. For example, the current Boston – San Francisco route in winter is a 7 hour flight which means we have to deploy the A319 on that route for range purposes. The A320neo and the A320s with sharklets will give us the additional range that will allow us to increase the capacity on that route. It will also give us the additional range to start considering destinations such as Hawaii.
NYCA: You mention the longer range flights – currently there is the one shorter flight – San Francisco to Portland – do you see the focus in the future being on the longer range flights?
DC: Yes – our current product is designed for the passengers that will be spending longer times in their seats on longer duration flights.
NYCA: One thing I’ve noticed is the pride in the team members that work for Virgin America – what does this say about the company and its leadership team?
DC: Again, it comes down to giving the paying passenger the best product. When the passenger is happy with the product, it means that we are doing our best and that makes the teammates have pride in what they are providing and that is from the top of the organization down.
NYCA: Thank you once again for inviting NYCAviation to be a part of this special flight and for the hospitality aboard.
All too soon, the 4hr 37min flight arrived at DCA Reagan National on a partly overcast afternoon, flying in on the River Visual approach to runway 19. The perfect landing and the short taxi to the gate also enjoyed the traditional water cannon salute. Post-flight arrival gate festivities included a welcome from Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority COO Margaret McKeough capped off the memorable day – the day of an incredible Flight to the Capital.
This article wouldn’t be possible without special thanks to Virgin America CEO David Cush for his hospitality and granting NYCAviation News the chance of the interview and to Abby Lunardini and her PR team for the incredible support and assistance before, during and after the flight.