Mesa campaigns to lure Virgin Airlines


The scramble to lure another airline to Phoenix-Mesa Gateway Airport was thrust into high gear Friday as thousands of airport users and backers were urged to lobby a San Francisco-based carrier for service.

But the campaign to woo Virgin America, a rapidly-growing airline that plans to fly to 30 major airports by 2012, could evolve into a tug-of-war between the Mesa-based airport and Phoenix Sky Harbor Airport to land the low-cost carrier.

Virgin America’s Adam Green, director of network planning, acknowledged Friday that Sky Harbor also has expressed an interest.

“We’re always interested in bringing new air service to Phoenix and we’ve been talking to a number of airlines but I can’t divulge what specific companies we have talked to,” said Alisa Smith, Sky Harbor spokeswoman.

Gateway launched a bid after the airline expressed an interest in the Phoenix market, said John Barry, Gateway’s marketing director.

If Gateway can land Virgin, it would be the second airline providing service to it. Allegiant Airlines already serves the airport.

Barry said he fired off e-mail messages to more than 5,000 airport customers and supporters on Gateway’s database, urging them to contact Virgin America, in addition to asking the East Valley Partnership, a regional business group; the Mesa Chamber of Commerce and the five Southeast Valley communities that own and operate the airport, including Gilbert, to follow suit with names on their databases.

The Website of the Arizona Wing Civil Air Patrol’s Willie Composite Squadron 304 at Gateway Airport also urged its viewers to support the move.

“PhxMesa Gateway needs your support,” read a message covering most of the Website’s home page. “Virgin America is considering scheduled air service to the Valley from San Francisco, California. We respectfully request your support in recommending Phoenix-Mesa Gateway Airport for this service.”

Barry said he was overwhelmed by the response to his request for help.

“I hit everybody I could,” he said. “It looks like Virgin America wants their feedback.”

Abby Lunardini, director of Virgin America’s corporate communications, said, “Phoenix is one of the cities on our list and we’re hopeful that we can bring there eventually. But nothing is in the imminent future.”

The Phoenix market was among 30 metropolitan areas identified by the carrier in August, 2007 when it launched service between San Francisco International Airport and John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York.

Barry said he first talked to Virgin America in March during a meeting of airline and airport executives in Ft. Worth, Tex.

The airport marketing director said he also had discussions with executives of four other carriers about possible service to Gateway, but did not name the airlines.

Virgin America was cleared to begin flying less than two years ago as a carrier 25 percent owned by Richard Branson, a British billionaire industrialist.

Federal law bars foreign citizens from owning more than 25 percent of a U.S. airline or exercising operational control.

Branson’s virtually world-wide Virgin brand includes Virgin Atlantic Airways and the Virgin Records music. He is the 236th richest person according to Forbes’ 2008 list of billionaires.

Virgin America is an independent U.S. company, not a subsidiary of Virgin Group.