Virgin America Debuts ‘Jefferson Airplane’

Still grounded, the airline promotes its plane named for the Bay Area rock band

By: Maxine Cass

Grace Slick, the iconic 1960s lead singer for the Jefferson Airplane rock band, did not sing “White Rabbit” as Virgin America’s CEO Fred Reid debuted the airline-to-be’s first aircraft that he had personally named Jefferson Airplane. Instead, she beamed, flanked by San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom and California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.

On Oct. 11, Reid presented Virgin America employees and the press with an Airbus A320, visible evidence that the San Francisco Bay Area-based airline hopes to lift off soon.

So far, the airline has raised financing, selected the San Francisco Bay Area and SFO as its base, chosen SFO to JFK as the first of 10 city pair routes, ordered 34 new Airbus A320 aircraft, started hiring and training employees and created a Web site. But is Virgin America ready to fly?

Not yet the process for a U.S. Department of Transportation certificate granting Burlingame-based Virgin America permission to fly continues. The airline-in-waiting has faced challenges from U.S. competitors like Continental Airlines and other legacy carriers that maintain that laws requiring U.S. ownership and citizenship of Virgin America’s owners may not have been met. Reid and Virgin America’s corporate communications chief, Gareth Edmondson-Jones, go to great lengths to emphasize that Virgin Atlantic and the Virgin Group’s British chief, Sir Richard Branson, own no more than 25 percent of Virgin America, the amount of foreign ownership U.S. law permits. On July 12, the D.O.T. told the company that its application to fly was complete, and Virgin America awaits the next step or a decision.

The aircraft naming “was to introduce the Virgin brand that stands for innovation, style and fun,” noted Edmondson-Jones, who remains optimistic that the Jefferson Airplane may fly in the first quarter of 2007.

Travel agents will have to wait until D.O.T. certification to hear about Virgin America’s booking and sales engines, route details, a fully functioning Web site and cabin amenity details. Dovetailing on the Jefferson Airplane debut was an announcement that every-seat in-flight entertainment would include offerings by Disney, Fox, Warner Brothers and Paramount. The public can name the 33 other aircraft on the “Name Our Planes” section of the company’s Web site.

Photo © Maxine Cass 2006

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