Virgin America filed an application with the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) on March 12 for the right to operate two non-stop daily flights to Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport (DCA) from its home base of San Francisco International Airport (SFO).
The only major airline headquartered in California, Virgin America was one of several carriers to apply for new DCA slots for longer-haul routes under the recently signed FAA Modernization and Reform Act of 2012. The act included a provision authorizing the DOT to award new flights between DCA and domestic airports located beyond that airport’s 1,250 mile “perimeter limit.”
Despite the size of the travel market and the region’s innovation-based economy, the San Francisco Bay Area has never had nonstop flights to DCA.
As a result, Virgin America claims that, for many years, Bay Area consumers and businesses needing to travel to the U.S. capital have had to face higher fares and limited options: either to travel to Washington Dulles, 25 miles from the city center, or choose one-stop connecting flights to get to DCA, which is close to downtown Washington D.C.
“With no current service at DCA and as the only airline headquartered here in the Bay Area, Virgin America is uniquely suited to bring low-fare competition to the largest market in the nation previously without nonstop flight service to DCA,” said David Cush, president and CEO of Virgin America.
“The move to open up service to DCA by the DOT is to be applauded, and we hope that we can provide meaningful low-fare competition on the route so that local travelers and businesses can enjoy lower fares and more choice,” added Cush.
Previous beyond perimeter awards were last made in 2004. According to Virgin America, the Bay Area and SFO have respectively been the largest beyond perimeter market and airport that have not had non-stop flights to DCA.
Smaller markets awarded DCA flights in the past include Denver (four frequencies), Seattle (two frequencies) and Phoenix (three frequencies). To date, the only DCA beyond-perimeter service to California that the Department of Transportation has authorized is a single daily round-trip to Los Angeles.
The San Francisco Bay Area dwarfs these and all other beyond perimeter markets not yet served, says Virgin America. It cites publicly available traffic data which show that the Washington DC-Bay Area travel market is more than 78 per cent larger than the DC-Denver market. In addition, SFO alone is nearly twice the size of all other non-California beyond perimeter airports previously allocated, the airline says.
Launched in August 2007, Virgin America says it has seen fares drop by as much as 30 per cent when entering less competitive long-haul markets from SFO. According to the airline, when Virgin America entered the SFO-Chicago O’Hare market in 2011 and the SFO-Dallas/Fort Worth International market in 2010, fares dropped by over one-third on these routes.
A study commissioned by San Francisco International Airport shows the impact of new low-fare service from 2006-2011 as having lowered fares for SFO travelers overall by 18 per cent, Virgin America notes.
“In a March 2011 survey of more than 100 of our member companies, 67 per cent indicated that they travel from the Bay Area to Washington D.C. on business,” said Carl Guardino, president and CEO of the Silicon Valley Leadership Group.
“Although our region powers the global economy, to date, we have had no non-stop flight service from the Bay Area to the closest airport to our nation’s capital … It is past time that we had direct flights that link the world’s innovation capital with our nation’s capital,” added Guardino.
Virgin America applied to the DOT for two of a total four DCA-beyond perimeter frequencies now opened up to “new entrant and limited incumbent” airlines. There is a separate DOT allocation process for the largest legacy airlines. If approved, Virgin America would launch SFO-DCA flights by summer 2012.
The airline’s proposed SFO-DCA schedule is focused on convenient morning and afternoon/evening departures and arrivals for Bay Area travelers. Its proposed daily schedule from San Francisco to Washington Reagan National Airport would see its first flight departing SFO at 9:05 a.m. and reaching DCA at 5:10 p.m. local time. The second flight would leave SFO at 1:35 p.m. and land at DCA at 9:40 p.m. local time.
In the other direction, Virgin America’s proposed first flight would push back from the gate at DCA at 8:25 a.m., in order to make an 11:05 a.m. arrival at SFO, local time. The second flight would begin taxiing at DCA at 6:15 p.m. and would reach SFO at 8:55 p.m., local time.