Sharklets capture Virgin America's interest

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Management at Virgin America believes Airbus A320s equipped with sharklets could be ideal for some of the transcontinental routes in its US network.

Airbus launched the wingtip devices, which will become available on the A320 family from 2012, at the Dubai air show in November 2009. Finnair recently concluded a deal with Airbus to launch the sharklet for the A321.

"We're certainly interested in the A320 with sharklets," Virgin America CEO David Cush recently told ATI on a flight celebrating the launch of the airline's first international service to Toronto. He explains that not only do they improve fuel burn but also add "some range and performance which is very helpful in the winter flying from the East Coast to California".

Cush expects Virgin America to add sharklets to its aircraft "as soon as they're available".

But Virgin America has no immediate interest in retrofitting its current fleet of 28 Airbus narrowbodies with sharklets if Airbus decides to offer customers that option. Cush says the fuel savings for the retrofitted aircraft, "would certainly be less than the 3% they're offering on the factory install".

Since a number of the carrier's aircraft start coming off lease in 2016, the investment is not worthwhile. "Basically as those aircraft come off lease we can replace them with aircraft with sharklets," Cush says.

"The sharklets do put a lot of additional stress on the wing, and I would just feel more comfortable from a long-term maintenance perspective having the strengthening on the wing that Airbus is going to do as they put the sharklets on at the factory."

Asked about the prospects of new narrowbody aircraft in development Cush says that "there are very interesting airplanes that are coming out, if you look at the fuel and the overall cost efficiency of the CSeries. Our very strong hope is that Airbus will find a way to react to that technologically, be it a new engine, be it continued improvement in aerodynamics so that we can stay with the single fleet."

But Cush says that Virgin is not afraid to look at offerings from other manufacturers. "We certainly cannot be competing against airlines that have a 15% fuel burn advantage. If there is a more competitive airplane out there and it looks like the aircraft that we're flying now will be uncompetitive long-term we'll have to take a look at it."

When asked about a potential re-engined A320, Cush says Virgin America is "quite interested" in the option. "We're still talking about perhaps 2020 or 2025 for a completely new aircraft and that's a long time to forgo what could be a 12 to 15 percent efficiency improvement, that's something that's too big to be ignored, in our opinion."