Virgin America Posts Terrible First Quarter Loss, Has One Year to Prove Itself

Virgin America

Here we are in July and believe it or not, I haven’t written an article focusing on Virgin America here since last year. I guess it’s because the airline seemed to be on autopilot. It kept adding new routes and posting losses. So what’s changed? Nothing. Except the fact that the recently released first quarter earnings were really bad, even by Virgin America’s usual standards. This next year is going to be crucial for the airline as growth finally, mercifully slows for a brief time. This is the airline’s chance to prove that growth really is the only reason it isn’t making money.

Virgin America Cash Burn

The subhead on Virgin America’s release says “Airline Reports 33 Percent Increase in Operating Revenues While Fueling New Market Growth.” And that is about the only thing that’s remotely positive. Operating revenues were indeed up 32.8 percent but operating expenses were up 36.9 percent. The result? The airline has a -18.2 percent operating margin (up from -14.7 percent for the same quarter last year). There were some pretty big non-operating expenses as well and that pushed net margin to a brutal -28.5 percent, up from -22.2 percent last year. What the heck is going on here?

Let’s look at this a different way. Passenger unit revenue was up 1.3 points year over year. Meanwhile, the airline’s unit costs were up 5.3 points. A huge chunk of that was fuel. Unit costs ex-fuel were up only 1 point. But every airline has to deal with fuel. Smart airlines usually hold tight on capacity and work to raise fares. Virgin America did neither.

Big Revenue Problems
In fact, Virgin America’s revenue performance was pretty poor. There was a 29.3 percent increase in capacity and Virgin America dropped its fares to fill seats. The airline’s average fare tanked. It was $182.46 in the first quarter of last year but this year it was way down to $168.17. Some of that was offset because the airline filled more seats. Load factor was up to 80.6 percent vs 75.7 percent last year. But that hardly improved the airline’s situation.

Some of this was blamed on the airline’s transition to a new reservations system. That happened last October and according to Virgin America, it had an impact of $10 to $15 million in the quarter. That translates into $7 to $10 a passenger, which is a substantial hit. But even if you drop that straight to the bottom line (which wouldn’t be the case), then the results are still worse than last year. Still, heads should be rolling over how badly this system transition was botched.

Fuel was worth another $15 million versus last year, but that’s just the way the cookie crumbles. Of course, now the airline has started hedging, just in time for fuel prices to drop. It says it won’t get a benefit of lower fuel prices until later in 2012. Sheesh.

What about that all important cash metric? The airline saw its newly-flush cash balance drop sharply. At the beginning of the year, Virgin America had $160 million in cash after raising $150 million in debt during the fourth quarter. Just three months later? It was down to only $111 million.

Capacity Slows, Numbers Better Improve
So, what now? Well it’s been five years and the airline is still hemorrhaging. I think I’d adopt a new slogan, “the airline everybody wants to fly and nobody wants to own.” If I had any investment in this company, I would have lost faith in management long ago. It’s always the same story. “We’re growing fast because we have to if we want to succeed, but it’s also causing us to lose a ton of money. Oh yeah, and fuel prices are high.”

How is Virgin America going to stop this cycle? Well, it seems to be hanging its hat on a pause in the current “planned phase of accelerated growth.” Current aircraft deliveries “wind down” right about now. For the next year, it will have a fairly stable fleet. But then in the second half of 2013, it ramps right back up again and starts taking the first of 30 new A320s over three years. Then another 30 A320neos start coming in 2016.

This means that the next year will be quite telling. Since the airline loves to say that the constant capacity increase is what’s really hurting, then will it fare better with flat growth over the next year? If so, that’s great, but then the spigot opens up again and doesn’t shut off for several years. So I wouldn’t even call it good news – other airlines have managed to make money while growing. That’s a bad excuse. Still, I’m very curious to see what happens in the next year. This seems to me like it’s the airline’s best chance to show that there is any reason it deserves to be flying. But if it can’t make things look dramatically better, then I don’t have much hope for its future.

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80 comments on “Virgin America Posts Terrible First Quarter Loss, Has One Year to Prove Itself

  1. “after raising $150 million in debt during the fourth quarter”

    Any idea where the $150 came from? Perhaps a 22 year old loan officer at Citibank or JP Morgan?

    Amazing that companies that are actually making money are struggling to get a cent from the banks but if you show consistent losses money seems to grow on trees. Airlines (and banks) seem to operate in a parallel universe.

  2. The reality is Virgin America is simply not going to attract the consistent business traveller as they don’t have the network available, nor the connections to other carriers or the robust frequent flyer program that the larger carriers do. Truthfully legacy carriers domestic networks survive due to their need to funnel them into lucrative international destinations, corporate business, as well as robust credit card programs.

    The question is, if they collapse, who will buy up the A320neos?

    1. If the price was right I’m sure Delta would pick them up. They need them to complete the mongrel fleet look. :-D

  3. Here’s the elephant in Virgin America’s room, their destinations suck. Frankly, California is their “hub” and pretty much the only place east coasters can fly to on their airline. Unfortunately for Virgin America, there is only so many times we can fly to California. Worse yet, California has a few financial woes, so its not like there are going to be record numbers of Californians flying right now. All that being said, the lack of destination diversity is killing that airline.

    I’m not going to pay full price for a ticket unless I have to be in Dallas or something for work. Virgin America needs another hub. Desperately.

    1. Living on the West coast, I say the same about Jet Blue. Since I don’t go to JFK (or want to connect through) that much they are irrelevant to me. However Jet Blue is doing OK.

      1. Jetblue has managed to add destinations that are profitable, not flashy. See the Cartagena announcement. Jetblue says that things must “earn their way” into the business, VX just wants everyone to like them. I hope Virgin can turn a profit, because it is a great airline for Customers to fly. But management cant make money at this size, I dont see how -15% over even more flights can help. The critical mass they need is simply too big.

        Jetblue has the Dominican Republic cash cow. What does Virgin have? Transcon is the most competitive markets in the country, and they have the best product, but command the lowest pax revenue. Something is wrong here, and it stems from the top…

        1. Dominican Republic cash cow? What? While the Dominican Republic I’m sure generates a fair amount of leisure travellers, and also service amongst migrants, its hard to imagine that this is a “cash cow”.

          The reality is domestic capacity is, at this moment, sufficient for the needs of most leisure and business fliers in almost all markets. The airline industry is mostly at the whims of regional growth to spur a reason FOR travel. Its hard to imagine where signifcant growth can be maintained.

    2. @rachel I missed where VX has its hubs in Fresno, Bakersfield, and Stockton. The economies in the Bay Area and LA are doing fine. This is about competition.

      1. Robertol,

        This wasn’t a jab at California, but I think two hubs in one state is a little risky. Also, while SFO and LAX may not be doing poorly, I can tell you as someone in the conference and meetings industry, we discontinued California as a meeting site as of 2009. It is far too expensive for our attendees. I know we are not the only group to do so. And while we have 500 members in the state of California, we have seen incredible low attendance numbers from that state in the last 3 years. And they are primarily located in the LA Basin.

        My best manager always told me not to put all my eggs in one basket. I feel Richard Branson has with VX.

        1. I think criticizing SFO and LAX being a poor choice of hubs since they’re both in the same state is a bit of a red herring. Western states like California are much bigger than the east coast states. SFO-LAX is almost twice the distance as JetBlue’s JFK-BOS.

  4. Yeah something is wrong. One big problem is not enough seats in their planes. While it may be wonderful for legroom, 149 seats doesn’t cut it in an A320. Generally what they should do is pack 180 seats in there, but provide nice amenities like VX already does and perhaps a bag free. I doubt that VX makes enough money of those lovely first class seats to offset such a big reduction in seat count.

    The A319 is just horrible on that account. 120 seats!!! Not gonna work.

    Also red eye Hawaii flying needs to happen to improve utilization. These are brand new airplanes that need 13 hour days to pay off Airbus.

    1. Uh…have you looked at how many seats legacies have in 320s?

      US: 124 (319), 149 (320)
      UA: 120 (319), 144 (320)
      DL: 126 (319), 144 (320)

      So VX isn’t putting any fewer seats in their planes than a legacy. They just have more spacious F…and fewer F seats.

      Also, VX ALWAYS charges for first class, last I checked.

      1. Sorry I may have overestimated. I though DL and the likes put 160 in an A320. So that argument is moot :(

        Yes VX doesn’t upgrade anyone to first class, period.

        1. No, but the airport kiosk offering an upgrade for under $100 makes me wonder why anyone would pay an additional 500+ at time of booking. Sure they are eeking out marginal revenue with those cheap upgrades, but they are also stopping people from booking them early due to the cost differential.

    2. There is also the issue that if you have 155 passenger seats on an A320 you just required an additional flight attendant to work the flight, and labor in every airlines case is your second biggest cost, right behind fuel. Jetblue launched their airline with 162 seats, went down to 156 seats, and finally settled at 150 seats per A320.. They didn’t have that issue with the E190s which they just launched with an even 100 seats, and have stayed there..

      1. I have always wondered on the A320 with 155 seats…. What if it is a light load and there are 20 empty seats. Can they fly with 3 flight attendents on that leg?

        1. I’m not an expert, but I think the FAA regulations are by available seating, not the number of passengers on the plane.

          The other question is you don’t want schedule that flight for less people, then have to turn away folks because you don’t have a flight attendant to cover the seats.

  5. Starting codeshare with Virgin Australia may help, what would help even more is codeshare with Virgin Airways. At least that would give people a reason to connect via SFO from up and down the west coast.

    I never did get why a new airline would start using SFO and LAX as bases. You would have thought it would have been SFO and using the airplanes to more cities from the start. Maybe a LAX-JFK would have been ok for the Hollywood set, but that should have been it for LAX.

    1. Using LAX as a hub is like walking into a lion’s den. The competition is vicoious, and its not apparent that any one company can become the dominant player in the market. The legacies have been benefited to a certain extent by their fortress hubs protecting them in certain regional markets. Opening up in LAX gets you none of that.

      1. Jetblue tried SFO and OAK as “focus cities”….there hasnt been much growth at them for a reason–they dont make $$$$!

  6. All good points…but I think Rachel hit the nail on the head…they are too Cali-centric. SFO is a great nexus from the US to the Pac rim…not so much as a domestic hub (UA learned this). I also think they underestimated the leverage of MP in cherry-picking UAL disconent in the Bay Area. Get more bang for your buck by doing some flyover country>east p2p and they help (not solve…help) the utilization and revenue metrics.

    I wish, in a perfect world, that a Virgin Alliance would happen…but that is unlikely at this point. VAussie and VAtlantic are getting cozy with DL and Skyteam. I just cant see ATL being happy with VOz and VAt getting in bed with a premium transcon competitor. I have a feeling that they will have to go public sooner rather than later to survive….and handing the Keys to the Kingdom over to Wall Street is a risky option. Using the Floopbook IPO as a roadmap, they may not get much capital out of the deal.

    1. I agree. As a resident of D/FW, VA sucks! I can only get to LA and SFO easily, something I can already do on AA or WN (albeit with a stop). That in of itself would be fine, but I can’t get ANYWHERE else, like the east coast. Why would I build loyality with an airline that cant get me where i need to go?

      1. even beyond that, what is the VX advantage? The product is great, but if you wont spend more to get it, it simply doesnt work. VX goes after competitive markets, not niche, profitable ones.

        I truly hope they can find some cash cows–why not try california-caribbean or mexico?

        1. There really isn’t much demand for California-Carribean, and most of those flights would be too long to do non-stop on an A320. E.g., LAX-SJU is 3386 miles.

          Demand for travel to Mexico has also been in decline, with many U.S. tourists (sometimes unfairly) viewing the country as unsafe to visit, given the headlines about drug violence. Tellingly, Alaska, which has been serving Mexico leisure destinations for years, has been putting more capacity on Hawaii routes and cutting Mexico. But Hawaii isn’t an option for VX without going through an expensive ETOPS certification process (and since no US airline has ever tried to do it with A320s, it would probably be a particular pain).

  7. They should have pre-empted Spirit and intruded on DFW while American is distracted. Huge missed opportunity, in my opinion.

    1. The thing is VX still can. Spirit is handpicking routes with 1 daily flights at odd times. VX can come in with 4 dailies on any DFW-East Coast route and win some business. Although AAdvantage is strong, the MD-80 which are mainly at DFW are really dated and VX product would win.

      Maybe VX should status match AA :)

  8. I’d also like to add that Virgin America literally put all of their eggs in one basket. That is, the West Coast hub basket. If Virgin had substituted just one (I’d say LAX over SFO) hub for a midwest hub, they would be able to demand a bit more money for their product because they could connect more people to more destinations. For example, to get to Seattle on VX, I have to take a plane from IAD to LAX or SFO then go on to SEA. Seriously? At least with JetBlue, I can make more rational connections for a low cost.

    1. Jeff – I’ll admit that I actually reused this graphic from a post several years ago. It still seemed to fit the bill!

  9. Anyone else get Cranky’s post delivered by email with an ad offering the Virgin America Visa credit card? Total irony.

  10. Lots of talk here about how Virgin America needs a midwest hub. I completely disagree. Like JetBlue, Virgin America was not designed for connecting traffic. Sure, there are connections but the point is to fly on routes with enough demand without needing a ton of connecting traffic. There’s nothing wrong with having an operation based on one coast because there is a big population base. JetBlue has done the same thing in NYC/Boston that Virgin America is trying to do in LA/SF but that’s where the similarities end.

    JetBlue not only entered a market that lacked low fare competition but it got a sweetheart deal giving it a ton of slot exemptions. It instantly had a competitive advantage in that sense. The airline was profitable very quickly because there was a need for it.

    Virgin America, on the other hand, just decided where it wanted to base an airline and didn’t bother with the whole “need” factor. It clearly shows as five years down the line the airline still hasn’t made a dime.

    We can talk about TVs and mood lighting but that’s not why people fly an airline. Sure people like to fly Virgin America, but people really want cheap fares. And the two don’t work together very well. VX’s costs are high and they are only going to get higher as workgroups become more senior and airplanes need more maintenance. The model just isn’t working for the airline.

    1. I have to agree with you Cranky. JetBlue and Alaska both are doing just fine with a single coast set of hubs. However both JetBlue and Alaska have some very strong route controls, as you have indicated, that means that they are growing in a measured approach so as not to grow capacity beyond their means.

      I feel VX is doing what a lot of middle class American’s did pre-2008. Living on credit and trying to keep up with their neighbors. It didn’t work for Americans and it isn’t going to work for VX. They need to drop back and nurture their route network and grow at a slower and more modulated pace.

      They need to keep upward pressure on their operating revenues and fares and downward pressure on their operating expenses. I also think they need to drop their fuel hedging as the cost/benefit ratio just doesn’t work in their favor. US has proven you can make it without hedging and they have a operation closer to the others (DL, UA, AA, WN, etc) that benefit from hedging.

    2. I would disagree, if for no other reason than that O&D traffic relies upon a CONDENSED area to serve, which is why JetBlue works. NYC and Boston are simply larger numbers of people in an even more condensed area, and SFO and LAX simply aren’t equivalent. Without some sort of regional hub elsewhere, Virgin America does not have significant pax base solely interested in O&D traffic.

      The problem with trying to “poach” busy routes is it presumes that the only reason why people fly IS because of price. But its also about connections, or at very least, the appearance thereof. An average consumer will not want to figure out where a smaller airline flies to, or why they fly to X city and not Y. They want to type in names of cities and be told they can get there. While greater regionalization of airports is coming, its also about convenience and connections that serve people.

      1. Sean S – I disagree. LA and SF are plenty big enough to support a ton of O&D flying. I believe LAX has the largest number of O&D traffic in the nation. But size isn’t what matters. It’s size of the market versus the capacity that’s already there. JetBlue walked into a great opportunity in New York. That type of opportunity doesn’t exist elsewhere in the US these days.

        There is no need for Virgin America to simply follow the hub and spoke model of others. Virgin America participates in every online travel agent so nobody has to hunt for them. It’s very easy for people to find Virgin America flights if they want them, but people just don’t want to pay more to fly them.

        Connections are not going to solve Virgin America’s problems.

        1. I agree with Cranky on this; SFO and LAX are huge O&D and business markets. He correctly points out that JetBlue walked into a great opportunity at JFK (and BOS). Neither of those airports had hub fortesses or substantial LCC activity. It was great timing for JetBlue and they were astute enough to seize the opportunity. LAX and SFO are super competitive. Both JetBlue and VX have the “cool” halo around them, are fun to fly and appeal to what is likely a good demographic for an airline: youngish, educated professionals. JetBlue has simply executed, whereas VX has not.

  11. I agree with the comments regarding the shortcomings of VX’s network. Additionally, apart from some trendy superficialities, VX doesn?t stand out from the crowd of nickle and diming airlines. In 2009, the airline that promised a different flight experience announced that it would begin charging passengers for the first checked bag. And although a ?selection of non-alcoholic beverages is complimentary? in coach, VX charges for food just like the so-called ?legacy? carriers. Finally, Virgin America charges for pillows as well, as part of their “Red Eye Sleep Kit.”

    JetBlue?s baggage policy, on the other hand, continues to be that each passenger may bring one bag free of charge. And although B6 also charges for pillows, customers get both snacks and non-alcoholic drinks with no extra charge. JetBlue’s product runs rings around VX; I wish B6 would buy VX and upgrade the latter’s product.

    1. I think b6 doesn’t want to buy VX’s debts. If AMR gets bought out by US Airways and VX goes away b6 and everyone else will be sitting pretty. If AMR survives and merges with b6 and or Alaska and VX goes away or gets bought/merged everyone else will be sitting pretty. And i think some of these things will be happening in less than a year’s time.

      1. I don’t think anyone wants to buy VX, and I don’t think that B6 or AS wants to merge with anyone at all – they are both quite happy with what they’ve got already, and don’t need or want to expand.

  12. While true that LAX is the largest, if you combine the NYC airports together, they outstrip LAX twice over in O&D traffic. Thats not inconsequential. A destination delivering twice the pax traffic is substantial enough to sustain such a large O&D operation. LAX isn’t that market.

    While a hub and spoke model in the regional feeder sense might not be in the cards, and I imagine they never will be, if VX had some sort of hub or focus outside of there West coast base it would be beneficial. The comparison of Alaska isn’t comparable, due to the unique geography and market that they serve in the NW, especially in the face of NW’s final absorption into the Delta behemoth.

    1. Alaska is comparable. Not in terms of competition within hubs; I love Seattle, but it will never be a San Fran or LA (thankfully!), but rather in terms of operational comparisons. VX could learn a lot from Alaska, especially in terms of route and capacity controls, measured growth, and operational expense discipline.

      VX’s growth has always seemed like it was a case of throwing darts on a map. Alaska, by contrast, has usually done a good job of selecting compatible markets even when they might, at first glance, seem odd (e.g., STL-SEA). Alaska has maintained tight capacity controls and only grown capacity when necessary whereas VX has been ordering planes like they are going out of style.

      Alaska has also found niches that serve their customers well. Pacific NW/Alaska to Hawai’i is a huge market for them, which is a no-brainer given winters up there. What does VX have in the same vein? “Cool” interior only goes so far if you aren’t providing the service your target customers want. Alaska gets that, VX apparently doesn’t yet.

      1. I would also add that VX could learn from Alaska’s codesharing and partnering strategy (i.e., the more, the merrier), and from its excellent freqent flier program.

      2. Jason H – Hawai’i is a perfect example of what Alaska does well – opportunism. When ATA and Aloha both went out of business, there was a huge hole in mainland-Hawai’i flying. Alaska is the only one who really stepped into it in a big way. Now it’s an enormous part of Alaska’s business, and all because Alaska saw an opportunity and dove in. Virgin America has never jumped on an opportunity. It has just expanded as it saw fit.

        1. Alaska also had the capacity to do it. The big growth in Hawaii coincided with a collapse of demand to Mexico, so they were able to pull the capacity from Mexico and send it to Hawaii instead.

          The thing I’ve noticed about VX is that they seem to compete with United on virtually every route (at least when they started, I haven’t followed every new market closely). That seems like it’s probably inevitable though when you’re starting up in their hub.

  13. They keep saying that their RASM will pop when they stop growing, but so will their CASM, and judging from their historical performance, CASM will grow as much or more than RASM. And on a related note, they’re sinking money into an IFE system that looks to be increasingly outdated as airlines look more toward wifi combined w/ passenger-provided tablets/pcs/smartphones/etc. I really see no revenue premium to their model, or upside whatsoever. Tweeting your way to profitability doesn’t work.

  14. What a disappointment. They have a great product and service with great prices. I wish I could say this was unexpected; but it’s not.

  15. Cranky, are they really under the same pressures that other airlines are? Obviously their financial performance is not good, but isn’t Virgin’s situation unique because of Richard Branson? I guess I would equate Virgin with India’s Kingfisher airline- which has outstanding service but is essentially a hobby for the uber wealthy Indian owner (forgot his name). Anyway, maybe my question is incredibly naive but just was wondering.

    1. bobsmith – There’s one big difference there – US ownership laws prevent Branson from pouring more money in. So instead, he has to find wealthy Americans who are willing to pour money in. So it’s a little tougher.

        1. Nick – I don’t think he can. There is the issue of actual control and independence as opposed to what’s on paper. The DOT dug in pretty deep to ensure that Branson didn’t have too much control, even firing his choice for CEO. You can be sure that if Branson started to lean in too much, the other airlines would be on the phone with the DOT instantly to complain.

        2. But couldn’t Richard Branson loan those US companies money that in turn loan the money to VX. For example; give $50 million to hedge fund company A and then hedge fund company a loans VX $40 million. Hedge fund company a receives $10th million no matter what and then hopes to see a return on investment from money that they would’ce never had in the first place. Even he could give hedge fund company a $15 milion and they invest $20 million so they wouldn’t really be out as much and still hope for a return on investment. And then if VX grows into a company like b6 or WN or other LCC it turns itself into a long term investment. I do not see them growing much. I think 5 years and 19 destinations is not going to cut it. I’d be surprised if they survive. Even with web problems and conversion to Sabre they still would’ve probably lost at least $50 million.

          1. Don – If it’s truly debt and there is no control, then it might be possible. But I think others would easily be able to argue that as a quarter owner, Branson trying to funnel more money into the airline in that way would be against the spirit of the law.

  16. Really interesting article.
    I have never flown Virgin America before but by all accounts they seem good.
    I think they have to ask the question “What are we for?”

    As Ireland’s “hated” Ryanair proves: you can have the worst reputation and press, you can nickle and dime your customers to new levels, and still grow.
    Because if the perception is that you are cheap and you fly where your customers want to go and can sustain price competition (ideally to become the monopoly carrier) on a given route then you will succeed.

    In other words: the product can be amazing but people shop on price.

    1. The one thing that has to change is not the product or service. It is the management. I think that is the main problem. It is time to think outside the box. They are not cutting it.

  17. Virgin’s problem is that they wrongly assumed they’d be able to compete in a saturated market on gimmick alone. The successful companies – Apple, JetBlue, Southwest, Starbucks – have one thing in common – they created a unique, quality product for which there is no real substitute and introduced it to a market that was screaming for it. Virgin America’s onboard product is flashy, but it’s not *that* different. And the transcon market is a bloodbath, especially for low cost carriers. ATA tried and failed. America West tried and failed. All those funny named deregulation startups tried and failed. Airlines don’t have a problem attracting investors. Investing in airlines is sexy – even if it’s a losing bet. For all Richard Branson’s chutzpah, his airlines have never been consistent moneymakers – not even Virgin Atlantic. Lower fuel costs will ease the pressure on VX in the short term, but I have a feeling that (to quote Lynyrd Skynyrd) this bird you cannot change – and the results will be disastrous.

    1. America West has actually been very successful. Don’t be confused by their name change to that of their last buy-out US Airways. Even money they end up one of the big three along with United and Delta.

  18. The problem is that VX doesn’t serve the markets that are useful to a lot of flyers like me. I live in California and I can either fly VX to JFK or I could fly a legacy carrier for the same price. The advantage is that once you fly 25k with a legacy carrier, you get some perks (like free bags). You never get those with VX. So, why should I fly VX? Also, if I want to go to Montana, Savannah, Burlington VT, or some other out of the way place, VX won’t get me close.

  19. ONE FLIGHT ATTENDANT per Fifty SEATS. And, bother way, on and USAir has 150 on their A320\’s. And, United has two version of their A320’s: 144 and 138 seats

  20. Word is that a couple VPs in marketing and planning/RM got canned for this awful performance. They need to ditch transcon to survive…its profitable 3 months of the year and a loser the rest

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