Virgin America Heads to Ft Lauderdale, JetBlue Announces Soon After

I was just saying to someone the other day that Virgin America had been really quiet lately, and I wondered Virgin America Goes to Ft Lauderdalewhat they were up to. Apparently they’ve been working the old Jewish grandma market – they’re heading to Ft Lauderdale from LA and San Francisco. That’s kind of a weird move, but it wasn’t nearly as weird as JetBlue’s announcement of the same route a couple hours later.

Thanks to the early demise of Virgin America’s relationship with Direct Air, the airline has some airplanes lying around. So they’ve decided the best place to put that is on two daily flights between Ft Lauderdale and both LAX and San Francisco beginning November 18, just in time for Thanksgiving. LAX flights leave at 1045a and 10p while the returns leave at 7a and 720p. San Francisco flights leave at 1110a and 1140p while the returns leave at 1030a and 830p.

I don’t really get this one. In the past, David Cush told Ben Mutzabaugh over at Today in the Sky, “I think we’ve been pretty clear with people that we want to go to major business centers and primary airports.” Um, right. Ft Lauderdale is definitely not the primary airport in the region. That title falls to the insanely expensive airport down in Miami. So I asked Virgin America spokesperson Abby Lunardini what the rationale was and whether or not this meant they would now consider Midway in Chicago.

When we looked at demand and competition in the South Florida markets, we saw there was no direct service from FLL-SFO and little on FLL-LAX. Also, only about 1/3rd of Bay Area travelers are taking non-stops at present to South Florida – so we saw a pretty compelling competition story. Secondly, Miami has a significantly higher cost per passenger – so to keep fares low this was a consideration as well. Finally, when we looked at the market we found that FLL’s central, convenient location feeds the entire South Florida market and has a larger catchment demographic that fits with our model of service. We’re focused on population centers where our flights resonate with travelers that typically have higher expectations of service and amenities – and we think this is a perfect fit.

I think Midway vs [O’Hare] is a somewhat different story – in terms of competition, demographics, demand, etc. [O’Hare] is a market that currently has no low-fare carrier service from LAX or SFO to [O’Hare]. We do still hope to bring our award-winning, low-cost service to [O’Hare] in 2010.

I understand what she’s saying, but I’m not convinced there’s enough traffic to make this work. I’m also surprised that this is the next best option for the airline. In LA, there is more than just a little competition. Spirit and Delta both fly a daily redeye as does JetBlue out of Long Beach. On the return, Delta has a morning flight, JetBlue an afternoon flight, and Spirit an evening flight. Fares for random Wednesdays in October are showing up as low as $209 roundtrip including all taxes. Meanwhile, you can get a one way walkup tomorrow for $273, cheaper if you connect. I’m not convinced this is an underserved market. In fact, Delta has cut one frequency and shrunk the aircraft used. American has pulled out entirely.

If Virgin America is looking to stimulate the market with low fares, there isn’t much room to go lower. Out of Miami, however, it’s American that’s the only competitor with a half dozen flights a day – a very similar market to what they see at O’Hare except there’s only one mainline competitor instead of two. American can support its flights thanks to extensive connections to the Caribbean and Latin America, something Virgin America won’t have. Fares in the local market are a little higher than Ft Lauderdale, though as JetBlue Fights Virgin America in Ft Lauderdale - SFOmentioned, the costs are way higher.

Out of San Francisco, there were no nonstops to Ft Lauderdale until today, but Virgin America’s schedule makes connections fairly competitive timing-wise. But now they’ll have to contend with JetBlue which announced nonstop flights today on the exact same route. What the heck? I’d be surprised if JetBlue made a rash decision here. When asked, the airline confirmed for me that this had been in progress before Virgin America’s announcement.

My guess? I’d say that JetBlue probably had the route on their list of possibilities, but Virgin America’s announcement moved it up. And the fact that they’re starting the flight the day before Virgin America and using the subheader in their press release “First nonstop service from SFO to Fort Lauderdale”? Pretty tacky if you ask me.

But JetBlue does have something that Virgin America does not, or so they say. The second subheading says it all. “Easy connections available to the Caribbean.” That’s a good way to fill up planes, though when you look at their schedules, only San Juan and Cancun have remotely acceptable connections this winter. (And those connections are really only good one way.) Hmm, this does seem rather hasty, actually.

So Ft Lauderdale is likely to be blessed with low fares to the west coast for awhile. Jewish grandchildren in California should be very afraid.

[Updated 8/12 at 1057a: Looks like Spirit has decided to welcome Virgin to Ft Lauderdale on its website. Take a look below]

Spirit Welcomes Virgin to Ft Lauderdale

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