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Virgin America to apply for beyond-perimeter slots at Washington National, Cush says

Virgin America will apply to the US Department of Transportation (DOT) for the authority to fly from its San Francisco base to Washington National Airport in the third quarter.

The airline is proposing to fly two daily roundtrip flights on the route using its 119-seat Airbus A319 aircraft.

The proposed flights would complement Virgin's existing service to Washington-Dulles, which the carrier launched in 2007. The carrier currently operates four daily flights between Dulles and San Francisco, along with twice-daily Los Angeles service.

Service between National and the US West Coast has historically been restricted by a 2,012km (1,250mi) perimeter rule, but the US government has allowed a limited number of longer-haul flights.

The recently passed reauthorization bill for the Federal Aviation Administration created eight new beyond-perimeter slots earmarked for new entrant or limited-incumbent carriers, of which Virgin is applying for four. Each slot represents one takeoff or one landing.

There is currently no service between the two airports, but United Airlines plans to launch one daily roundtrip beginning in May with 124-seat Boeing 737-700s inherited from its merger with Continental Airlines.

The FAA reauthorization also allowed four incumbent carriers -- American, Delta, United, and US Airways -- to each convert two of their existing slots at National to beyond-perimeter slots.

In support of the proposed service, Virgin America CEO David Cush says in an interview that "San Francisco is the second-largest beyond-perimeter market from Washington" and is "much larger than Denver, and Phoenix, and other places that already have multiple frequencies."

The airline also believes its service, if approved, would yield positive benefits for consumers.

"As a low fare carrier and new entrant, we have had a demonstrated impact on fares since our launch in 2007," said Virgin America VP of Corporate Communications Abby Lunardini. "We have typically seen fares drop by 30% in less competitive long-haul markets we have entered from SFO."

Cush also noted that previous beyond-perimeter slot proceedings "favoured Western hubs" because they "focused much more on network utility than O&D [origin and destination] utility. That's been changed with this order. This order says that O&D utility is as important as network utility."

Cush adds that Virgin is the "best" airline to provide "fair competition" on the route, otherwise there would be "another United monopoly market from SFO."

Cush predicts the airline will be able to fly the route with a full passenger load as the carrier is upgrading the thrust on its CFM56 engines powering its A319 aircraft. The upgrade is expected to be complete by the end of May. National's longest runway is only 2,094m (6,869ft), potentially creating operational challenges for certain aircraft and routes.

Cush also says the carrier's sharklet-equipped A320 aircraft, the first of which is set to arrive next year, will fly on the route if Virgin receives approval.

"In all likelihood, once we get a sharklet-equipped aircraft that's the first place it would go." Cush adds. "Our preliminary numbers show that we can carry close to a full load for us, probably in the 140 [passenger] range." Virgin's current A320 aircraft seat either 146 or 149 passengers.

When asked how the new service could affect Virgin's Dulles service, Cush replied: "we certainly would not" reduce capacity on the route if the airline were to only receive enough slots for one frequency.

A capacity reduction is also "not in the plans" if two roundtrips would be scheduled, "but we have to look at it in terms of market demand and aircraft availability", he says.

No other new-entrant or limited-incumbent carriers at National have applied to receive some of the new beyond-perimeter slots. Applications are due to the DOT by 12 March.

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