August 16, 2012
Consolidation of the U.S. airline industry will yield benefits for all carriers, even if Virgin America opts to remain independent, the low-fare carrier’s CEO, David Cush, tells Aviation Week.
That the U.S. airline industry is expecting a small profit this year, despite high fuel prices and an anemic economic recovery, is proof that consolidation has worked, Cush said after the airline’s first flight to Reagan Washington National Airport landed Aug. 14. “The industry was consistently profitable in the late 1990s, during an economic bubble, or when oil prices were low,” he says. Historically, though, without these factors U.S. airlines struggled to make a profit. Since the industry consolidated, Cush notes that airlines now “are profitable.”
Virgin America is not involved in this latest round of consolidation, which has mainly seen legacy carriers merge together; however, the low-cost carrier is planning to expand its interline and code-share deals.
Currently, Virgin America has a code-share agreement with Virgin Australia. Cush says the San Francisco-based airline is looking beyond the Virgin group of airlines. Virgin America’s 14 interline partners include Cathay Pacific and Emirates Airline.
Cush believes his airline’s strategy is similar to that of Alaska Airlines’ 10-15 years ago. Like Alaska, Virgin America is expanding partnerships and is establishing a niche based on strong brand loyalty tied to a specific geographic location, which in Virgin America’s case is the San Francisco Bay area and Los Angeles.
Unlike Alaska, Virgin America is not profitable, Cush concedes, although he is adamant that the airline will post a profit by the end of the year. If it achieves that goal and is consistently profitable in subsequent quarters, the airline may consider going public, which Cush says could happen in 2013 or early 2014.
Continuing the Alaska analogy, Cush says that unlike the Seattle-based carrier, Virgin America will never achieve the dominance Alaska has in its home market. Competition is more intense in San Francisco and Los Angeles, and those cities are larger than Alaska’s core markets in Seattle, Anchorage and Portland, Ore.