Volaris Lands in Los Angeles, First Destination North of the Border

Volaris brought its first flight into LAX yesterday, and I headed out to the airport for the airline’s press conference celebrating the event. I must admit that I liked a lot of what I heard about Volaris, but these are some incredibly uncertain times for the airline right now.

Volaris is now flying a single daily trip from LAX to Toluca (outside Mexico City) and another one to Volaris Team in Front of AirplaneGuadalajara. They’ll be starting flights to those cities from Oakland as well, and at the press conference yesterday, Volaris Managing Director and CEO Enrique Beltranena (bottom left in the picture, though I’ll certainly understand if you’re distracted by those flight attendants) announced that they had just received approval to fly from Oakland to Tijuana as well. He also said that he expects Volaris to be flying to more than 10 cities in the US in the next two and a half years. So this is no small plan.

How the heck are they planning on being the first successful low cost carrier flying between the US and Mexico? A huge part of the plan is the Southwest codeshare that was announced earlier. In fact, it’s such a large part of the plan that Kyle O’Neil, Southwest’s Director of Alliances (the tall, white dude in the middle of the picture) was there at the podium Volaris LAX Decaltoday for the event.

Of course, the question on my mind was whether or not the codeshare was still proceeding as planned, especially considering that the WestJet deal had been delayed. So, I asked them to elaborate on details. Kyle said that Southwest was still planning to launch the codeshare in 2010, but he couldn’t announce a date. Original plans were for the codeshare to go on sale in early 2010, so this looks like there might be a little slippage in my mind. But Kyle reiterated that they were very committed to the partnership, something that was evident by his mere presence at the event.

For Volaris, I imagine the codeshare can’t start soon enough. They are coming off a disastrous traffic plunge in Mexico following the swine flu outbreak that began in April. Enrique admitted that Volaris has been suffering, but he said that he believes Volaris was the only airline in Mexico to be breakeven over the last six months. (Warning: He answered that question in Spanish, so I’m trusting that my Spanish skills haven’t failed me.)

In the end, Enrique presented a very nice plaque (at left) to LAX commemorating the start of their service. He said that they’ve presented this to each city they fly as a symbol that they intend to be Volaris Plaque Presentationthere for a long time. I like the symbolism.

So Volaris is pushing ahead, and LAX is a huge part of their commitment to making flying in the US work. They will be flying out of Terminal 2 here at LAX (convenient since Northwest flights all moved to Delta’s terminal yesterday), and while it’s not going to provide connections behind security to Southwest, it will at least be right next door.

What might you expect to see onboard? If you’re looking for legroom, you won’t find much. I’m told their A319s are equipped with 144 seats while the A320s have 172. For comparison, JetBlue’s spacious configuration has only 150 seats on an A320, but I think Volaris’ configuration makes sense for the airline. They do have leather seats and overhead TV screens, so the product is still quite nice. (You can see a photo of the inside of their aircraft on airliners.net.)

Perhaps the most interesting thing offered by Volaris is unique in this industry. As Enrique said (to many laughs), “We guarantee on-time performance or your money back so I hope your airport delivers.” That’s right. If your flight is late by more than 30 minutes, you get your money back, regardless of the reason for the delay. As a marketing campaign, I love this idea. It will certainly stand out and it’s a huge differentiator. On the other hand, remember why Domino’s dropped their 30 minute guarantee? They had drivers getting in accidents because they were rushing to beat the deadline. I really hope we don’t see any pressure on pilots to beat the deadline here. That makes me a little nervous.

Overall, it was a good event at LAX. Enrique seems like a very smart man, and he’s already built an airline that not only has to be the frontrunner of the low cost carriers in Mexico, but is also a great place to work. In fact, the biggest smile I saw from him all day was the one he let out when he was introduced as leading an airline that has been recognized as one of the top places to work in Mexico.

Would I try them if I were heading down to Mexico? Absolutely. And the low fares that they’re trying to bring into the market should help them stimulate additional traffic, assuming the burdensome taxes don’t overwhelm their efforts. I tend to think this can work, but this is not exactly the ideal time to be trying it. Still, they pushing ahead at full speed.

So what’s next for Volaris? Well, there was some pressure from LA officials for the airline to start service to Ontario as well (which is operated by the same folks that run LAX), but Enrique responded that “there is nothing more we would like to do than start service to Ontario. So if we are able to, and you are able to reduce the cost of the airport . . . .” Ah, smart man. Keep an eye on these guys, and if you have the chance to fly them, let me know your impressions.

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