Virgin America kicks off with first US flight, under lousy conditions

Posted by Mark Raby

San Francisco (CA) - North Amercia's newest airline, Virgin America, is now officially in the air as its first cross country flight took off this morning, although weather problems made for a bumpy debut.

The ceremony began this morning at JFK where Virgin CEO Richard Branson held a press conference.  Area thunderstorms led to a slight delay in the flight's departure, and caused several passengers, including Virgin America CEO Fred Reid and Comedy Central's Stephen Colbert, who was scheduled to christen the plane before it took off, to miss the event.

The inaugural flight, JFK to San Francisco, was timed to arrive at the same moment as Virgin's first flight from LAX.  San Francisco mayor Gavin Newsom will greet the first passengers before they're escorted to a launch party in a local club.

The hoopla surrounding the airline's first day underlines what it plans to bring to the travel market.  Virgin America brings several new features to the domestic travel market.  Each passenger has an individual touch-screen video monitor to access live TV, on-demand programming, pay-per-view movies, e-books, video games, and over 3000 songs.

Passengers can also interact with each other through chat rooms and multiplayer games open to everyone on the flight.  Additionally, they can communicate with people on the ground with the country's first approved in-flight e-mail and text messaging service, also done via the seat-back TV monitors.

The first flights are exclusive, invitation-only affairs.  Virgin put up an auction for two tickets on eBay, along with tickets to the after party, which went for $5,400.  Another auction for the LAX to SFO flight sold for around $2,100.  All proceeds went to the KIPP Foundation.

However, on a normal day Virgin America prices should appeal to all travelers.  Flights from LAX to SFO begin at around $44 each way, and round-trip jaunts between JFK and SFO are available for under $300, making the price competitive with the cheapest airlines and making it cheaper than its closest rival in terms of amenities, JetBlue.

The initial routes available for Virgin America include flights to and from New York City, Washington DC, Los Angeles, Las Vegas, and San Francisco.