ANALYSIS: As growth slows, Virgin America’s unit revenue aligns with low-cost competitors

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Virgin America's unit revenue increased at a rate many times greater than its low-cost competitors during the first quarter of 2013, bringing the carrier's revenue per available seat mile (RASM) in line with averages.

The Burlingame, California-based airline reported RASM of 11.18 cents during the quarter, a 17.7% gain year-over-year.

By comparison, RASM at five other low-cost US carriers - Allegiant Airlines, Frontier Airlines, JetBlue Airways, Spirit Airlines and Southwest Airlines - climbed between 1.5% and 3.9% for the first quarter, year over year, according to quarterly reports.

* Source: Q1 financial reports

Virgin America still has the lowest RASM in the low-fare sector, but the Burlingame, California-based airline has closed much of the gap.

The average RASM among low-fare carriers other than Virgin America during the period was 12.55 cents, with Southwest Airlines coming in highest at 13.62 cents.

Virgin America's RASM was slightly less than Spirit's and Frontier's, which reported RASM of 11.85 cents and 11.86 cents, respectively.

* Source: Q1 financial reports

That's a notable improvement for Virgin America.

For the full years of both 2011 and 2012, the carrier's unit revenue was roughly 10.5 cents. By comparison, average RASM of the other five low-cost carriers was 12.02 cents for 2011 and 12.31 cents for 2012, according to data from annual financial reports.

* Source: 2012 annual reports

Virgin America chief executive David Cush attributes the RASM gains to efforts by the fast-growing, six-year-old airline to moderate growth and retool its schedule to align with demand from business travellers.

In 2012, the carrier came to the end of a two-year growth phase that included the acquisition of 25 Airbus aircraft, deliveries that doubled Virgin America's fleet.

Virgin America launched service to nine destinations since 2011, including Newark Liberty International, Chicago O'Hare International, Mineta San Jose International, Portland International, Philadelphia International and Ronald Reagan Washington National airports, as well as destinations in Mexico.

The carrier's available seat kilometres jumped 38% to 1.8 billion between January of 2011 and May of 2013, according to Capstats.

In the next few weeks, Virgin America will launch flights to Austin, Texas and seasonal service to Anchorage, Alaska, but Cush says no more cities will be added in 2013.

Virgin America will also not take delivery of additional aircraft until 2015.

"With this major growth phase largely behind the company, Virgin America is now experiencing improved revenue performance across its network," Cush says in a media release.

The carrier eliminated some under-performing flights in recent months, including overnight cross-country services, Cush said. In addition, roughly 90 crew members took periods of voluntary leave in the last several months, but nearly all have since returned, Cush tells Flightglobal.

"We accomplished what we wanted, which was to significantly reduce our operating loss," Cush tells Flightglobal.

Virgin America reported an operating loss of roughly $15 million during the first quarter, considerably less than its operating loss for the first quarter of 2012, which was $48.6 million.