This airline can party on the ground, too

The brainchild of billionaire entrepreneur Richard Branson, low-cost airline carrier Virgin America doesn't have the history, clout, or geographic reach of a Delta or United. The three-year-old airline also hasn't conclusively proven its long-term business sustainability.

But none of that mattered on Tuesday, when the airline kicked off its service between its San Francisco hub and Toronto, pulling out all the stops in its signature, brand-savvy style. Even those skeptical about the airline's future would have to admit that this is one company that knows how to celebrate.

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Newsom greets Branson, Schwarzenegger

Commemorating its first international route, Virgin America positioned itself as a start-up among dinosaurs and a forward thinker in the green-tech world--a very Silicon Valley attitude for the Burlingame, Calif.-based airline.

Applauding the airline for bringing more jobs to the San Francisco metro area, San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom (far left) welcomed California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger (center) and Virgin Group CEO Richard Branson (right) to the city's airport.

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Virgin's signature sexiness goes north of the border

Always eager to push the boundaries of marketing slogans, Virgin America taglined Tuesday's event with "Hooking Up With Canada."
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Branson takes the podium

Billionaire mogul Richard Branson (center) has been both applauded and criticized for being shamelessly colorful; here, flanked by Gavin Newsom (left) and Arnold Schwarzenegger (right), he hailed Virgin America's home base of California and promised that its new route to Toronto would be commemorated with "one hell of a party."
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The spectators line up

People surrounded the Tuesday morning press conference at San Francisco International Airport with cameras, eager to snap a shot of what was going on at the gate.
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Crowded party plane

The flight attendants might have been bringing round after round of free cocktails through the aisle, but this was still a flight on a commercial aircraft--which means not a whole lot of room to move about and socialize. That didn't stop most of the passengers, who had to be gently reminded several times to please return to their seats when it came time for the plane to land.
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Mounties on the tarmac

Members of the iconic Royal Canadian Mounted Police joined a cavalcade of photographers for the red-carpet arrival of Virgin America at Toronto's Pearson International Airport.

Conveniently for patriotic Canadians, Virgin decorates everything in their flag's color scheme of red and white.

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Air Drake?

These days, with heightened airport security--not to mention the fact that Toronto just hosted the G20 summit of international leaders--it's rare that a large commercial airport lets a flight disembark passengers directly on the tarmac instead of at a gate. Somebody at Virgin America was apparently able to pull the requisite strings.

The Airbus A320 was christened "Air Drake" after pop sensation du jour Drake, a Toronto native who was on board the flight (and chilled in first class for most of it). That's his face plastered near the tail; no word on whether the airline plans to keep it around.

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Virgin America takes to the skies again

Oh, it's not over yet. After the flight landed, Virgin America took over the rooftop bar at the newly opened Thompson Hotel in Toronto for cocktails and panoramic views of the city.

The partially outdoor bar also served to inform attendees why the landing of the flight earlier that day had been a bit choppy: it was a rather windy afternoon.

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Hooking up. Again.

Virgin America was shameless about its "Hooking Up With Canada" slogan, decorating the windows of the Thompson Hotel rooftop bar with it. It was a little much, but at least they didn't stoop to corny puns involving Canadian slang.
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Branson shoots the breeze

Branson's celebrity quotient certainly attracted press to the whole shindig; at the afterparty on the Thompson Hotel rooftop, he was mobbed by the camera crews who weren't able to nab soundbites from him in-flight.

But in a brief speech at the afterparty, Branson also related to the crowd a local example of how his airline industry endeavors don't have a perfect track record: Virgin's London-based airline, Virgin Atlantic, started flying to Toronto just less than a decade ago, only to pull service within months in the wake of airline industry woes following the September 11 terrorist attacks.

Branson said on Tuesday that he hopes to reopen Virgin Atlantic service to Toronto within a year or two.

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After the party comes the afterparty

And after the party comes the afterparty. The rooftop soiree was followed by yet another party that filled up the lobby bar and basement space of the Thompson Hotel--which, like Virgin America's route to Toronto, also just opened for business.

The hype and enthusiasm around Virgin America, like that surrounding some of its neighbor tech companies in Silicon Valley, can sometimes seem premature--a party-friendly attitude, an affinity for cutting-edge technology, yet still without revenues that match the cult following.

The airline is eager to prove them wrong, announcing Tuesday that in the winter it'll start flying to the Mexican cities of San Jose del Cabo and Cancun, with more announcements of new routes to come.

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