Green tech, jobs hailed in Virgin America expansion

The colorful airline brought in California's governor and San Francisco's mayor to celebrate its first international route from San Francisco to Toronto.

Caroline McCarthy Former Staff writer, CNET News
Caroline McCarthy, a CNET News staff writer, is a downtown Manhattanite happily addicted to social-media tools and restaurant blogs. Her pre-CNET resume includes interning at an IT security firm and brewing cappuccinos.
Caroline McCarthy
4 min read
Virgin Group CEO Richard Branson (center) announces Virgin America's inaugural flight from San Francisco to Toronto, flanked by San Francisco mayor Gavin Newsom (left) and California governor Arnold Schwarzenegger (right). Caroline McCarthy/CNET

SAN FRANCISCO--So a British billionaire, a Hollywood action hero, and an unusually good-looking city politician walk into an airport terminal.

That would be Virgin Group CEO Sir Richard Branson, California governor (and erstwhile Terminator) Arnold Schwarzenegger, and San Francisco mayor Gavin Newsom, who were all on hand at San Francisco International Airport on Tuesday morning to kick off Virgin America's inaugural flight from San Francisco to Toronto. It's the three-year-old Burlingame, Calif.-based airline's first international route.

"To get Virgin America established, we had many battles," Branson said in the press conference, sounding more like the founder of a scrappy dot-com start-up than the seasoned head of the conglomerate that runs multiple international airlines, a fledgling space travel venture, a mobile division, and now a gaming brand that was announced at this year's E3 conference. "Many of the big carriers didn't want to see us get established here in America."

There were cupcakes and champagne cocktails served (for an 8:00 a.m. event), alluring posters advertising "Hooking Up With Canada" with Virgin's signature sex-appeal marketing, and a guarantee from Branson that the flight to Toronto would be "one hell of a party." But Schwarzenegger and Newsom were on hand to talk about how the expansion of Virgin America--the only airline headquartered in California--will bring more jobs to the Bay Area, and how its appeal to making the airline industry more entrepreneurial and eco-friendly makes it the right kind of company for the region that bred the likes of Apple, Google, and Facebook.

"(It's) a great expansion of business here, and to expand an airline business--any business--during an economic downturn is a big challenge, let me tell you," Schwarzenegger said, adding that Virgin's new routes and expanded presence at San Francisco's airport will bring 500 jobs to the state per year over the course of the next few years.

Virgin America, which first took off in 2007 and in which the Branson-led Virgin Group has a 25 percent stake, has always pitched itself as a forward-thinking brand in terms of both tech-savviness and sex appeal. Last year, it became the first U.S. airline to offer fleet-wide Wi-Fi access; it allows passengers to purchase carbon offsets along with their tickets and says on-board technology and flight logistics make them up to 25 percent more fuel-efficient than most competitors. Virgin planes also have an extensive in-flight entertainment system that offers touch-screen food and drink orders and a flirty messaging app that lets passengers text one another.

The flight on Tuesday had first flown from Los Angeles to San Francisco, where Schwarzenegger and Branson tweeted via in-flight Wi-Fi that Virgin America would also be adding routes to the Mexican resort cities of Cancun and San Jose del Cabo. Pending approval by the U.S. Department of Transportation, the routes will begin this winter. Branson hinted in the press conference that there will be "a very big announcement" later this year about even more expansions. And then there's Virgin's central presence at the new San Francisco Terminal 2.

"(It) will be LEED Silver, the greenest expansion of any airport in the United States of America," San Francisco mayor Gavin Newsom said. "We're going to have a slow-food pavilion, a farmers' market. All these values that everyone loves to mock us about are being put together in this unique, extraordinary environment."

Newsom said that Virgin shares the Bay Area's "values of sustainability, long-term business strategy, long-term branding strategy...(and have) an innovative spirit in their approach to the governance of an airline in an industry that needs a new spirit and an entrepreneurial approach."

But Virgin America has had its setbacks, too: It recently ended its route connecting San Francisco and Orange County, Calif., after less than a year of service, citing a desire to focus on longer-haul flights. It also likely had trouble competing with Southwest Airlines. And in-flight Wi-Fi showed its dark side this spring when people were able to tweet the unfortunate experience of a diverted flight from Los Angeles to New York that ended up keeping passengers on the plane for 14 hours.

That said, considering the overall woes of the airline industry, Virgin is still doing quite well, image-wise. And with Branson's colorful, entrepreneurial attitude and borderline militaristic statements about combating climate change, he's the sort of business leader with whom Golden State politicians would want to be aligned. Both Schwarzenegger and Newsom have made environmental policy a central focus of their rhetoric throughout their terms in office. Schwarzenegger, a Republican who is term-limited, is not running for re-election; Newsom, a Democrat, has his sights set on the California lieutenant governor's post.

Once the politicians were through talking about jobs and the environment, it was party time again. Bystanders reached for champagne cocktails, and the spotlight turned to Canadian pop singer Drake, a guest of honor on the flight whose music was playing on the plane's speakers as everyone filed on board. And when the plane was about to take off for Toronto, Branson reminded everyone that when it comes to Virgin parties, all bets are off.

"We've come a long way since I jumped off the top of the Palms Hotel to celebrate Virgin America's first flight to Vegas," he said.