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July 31, 2008

Virgin America Joins the Space Race

Branson brings space to the masses.

by Barbara S. Peterson

Paparazzi and VIPS like astronaut Buzz Aldrin gathered at a remote airfield in Mojave, California, this week to witness the unveiling of Sir Richard Branson's latest pet project: a space tourism jet that will blast well-heeled passengers 60 miles above earth when the Virgin Galactic company opens for business some two years from now. The double-hulled gleaming mothership, dubbed WhiteKnightTwo, will be the world's largest all-carbon composite aircraft when it begins flying the Virgin colors to an altitude of about 50,000 feet--at which point it will launch a smaller rocket ship called SpaceShipTwo, which will take six passengers and two pilots on a two-and-a-half-hour thrill ride. The amateur astronauts will experience weightlessness and get some amazing views of earth. (They'll arrive a bit lighter in the wallet, as well: the "fare" for this flight is $200,000.) 

Although his guests came for the historic viewing, Branson couldn't resist the chance to tout his vast travel empire, especially Virgin America, the domestic U.S. airline that's about to mark its first anniversary. Not only did we arrive at the Mojave event on a chartered Virgin America A320 from LAX--bearing the slogan "My Other Ride Is a Spaceship"--but also the airline's loyalty program members have a chance to earn a seat on a Virgin Galactic flight. 

"It is safe to say we are the only airline offering this perk," cracked David Cush, chief executive of the San Francisco-based low-fare airline, which now flies to seven U.S. cities with a fleet of 22 A319 and A320 airplanes. Fliers who accumulate 10,000 points in the carrier's "Elevate" mileage program will get a chance to enter the competition, which will send one member to join the billionaires and celebrities aboard the Virgin rockets (physicist Stephen Hawking, designer Philippe Starck, and actress Victoria Principal are among those booked).

The party this week included one such aspiring space cadet, a young businessman from Virginia named Michael Eisenberg who entered a Virgin America contest for a seat on the charter flight from LAX to Mojave (with a round-trip coast-to-coast ticket thrown in, as well). A self-described space nut, Eisenberg said he hoped to be among those competing for the ultimate prize. "My generation has lost some of the wonderment of space"  that Branson hopes to revive, he said.

Also this week, Virgin America came out with a new initiative that will give fliers another kind of space. Called "main cabin select," the airline will add a third class to its existing first- and coach-class options, with 38 inches of seat pitch in the exit and bulkhead rows, free food and drinks, and other amenities like priority boarding and security screening. It will be available starting in mid October; prices have not yet been set.


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