Virgin America Ascends Higher Than Its 'Fly Girls' TV Show

One thing you won't see much of on the new reality TV show Fly Girls is the inside of an airplane. It may seem a bit ironic, since the show on the CW network details the lives of five stunning flight attendants from Virgin America airlines. But it's by design.

During an interview, Virgin America CEO David Cush told DailyFinance that the airline would have been more reluctant to have given approval to the show if it had focused on the daily operations of the carrier.

Cush, a former top American Airlines (AMR) executive, is no dummy. His San Francisco area-based airline took top honors as Best Domestic Airline among U.S. carriers in the Condé Nast Traveler's magazine 2009 Readers' Choice Awards.

Focus on Flight Attendant's Lives

However, Cush, like me, remembers the 2004 cable TV reality show, Airline, which followed employees of Southwest Airlines (LUV) as they dealt with weather delays, blackouts and passengers who missed their plane because they arrived too late or too drunk. Not exactly the type of publicity that Cush feels would be helpful to his fledgling airline.

There was no need to worry. Cush says producers wanted to focus on the flight attendants' lives, on the conflicts and struggles that make up reality TV. This may explain why Virgin America is only a bit player in its own show.

In fact, viewers of the first three episodes saw more of the flight attendants in their Los Angeles crash pad that they share together than on Virgin America flights.

Critics have slammed Fly Girls, saying it seems scripted, and poorly scripted at that. They attack its image of flight attendants as sex objects, a reminder of days past. Not unlike decades ago when startup airline Southwest put hot pants on its pretty new hires. The women were selected as flight attendants by a committee that included the same person who selected hostesses for Hugh Hefner's Playboy Jet.

Lucky for viewers, only eight Fly Girls episodes have been ordered up by the CW network.

Despite the TV show, the almost three-year-old airline has developed a loyal following of travelers. I can see why. With distinctive mood lighting, 3,000 MP3s on board every flight and satellite TV in seatbacks, Virgin America has quickly developed a reputation as the hippest airline flying. You could call it a traveling nightclub.

Seeking to Lure Business Travelers

But Cush says he wants to focus on expanding the airline by attracting more business travelers. He says the carrier, which was founded by Virgin Atlantic founder Richard Branson, gets one-third of its customers from the business-class segment. He says features like a power slot under every seat for laptop plug-in and wireless access on every plane have been helpful in attracting business travelers.

Cush is aiming to lure more business fliers by increasing flights, particularly to city pairs that lack nonstop service. The carrier announced last month that it intends to add nonstop service this summer between San Francisco and Los Angeles and Orlando, Fla., and between Toronto and Los Angeles.

While Orlando may be home to Walt Disney World, it also attracts large groups of business travelers because it houses one of the world's largest convention centers, says Cush.

Adding Cities

Cush says business travelers are more inclined to try an airline if it can cut its flights' duration. Cush said a third yet-to-be-named city will be added to Virgin America's route map later this year. He said the airline plans to take delivery of six more planes this year, and three more in the first three months of 2011. Virgin America currently has 28 Airbus A320s in its fleet.

Virgin America also announced over the last few months' expansion of "Elevate," its frequent-flyer program, including tie-ins with Hilton Hotels, Avis/Budget and Virgin Blue, Branson's Australian airline. Branson is actually a minority owner in Virgin America. Federal aviation officials made it clear back in 2006 that the airline wasn't going to get an operating certificate without a reorganization that gave American investors majority ownership.

Still, if you haven't heard about Virgin America, it's not surprising. Fly Girls isn't a runaway hit, and Virgin America currently flies only to San Francisco, Los Angeles, New York, Washington D.C., Seattle, Las Vegas, San Diego, Boston, Fort Lauderdale and Orange County, Calif.

And Virgin America is already pulling service out of Orange County in late May, where it had problems developing a loyal following. As the airline attempts to make 2010 its first profitable year, it has been experiencing the same issues that have sent other startups into the graveyard.

Trying to Crack O'Hare

Cush said Virgin America has been having difficulty securing additional gates and slots at John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York City, where it only has a handful of flights. At Chicago's O'Hare Airport it has struck out completely. "We need more flights at JFK to get critical mass,'' he says. "We've been told at JFK we can't expand and O'Hare we can't have flights.''

The problem is that his airline must negotiate the right to use airport gates and landing and departure slots. But airport authorities in New York and Chicago have given priority to existing tenants such as American and United (UAL), which aren't interested in having new competitors.

He said Virgin America has been trying to establish service at O'Hare since 2008 without luck. At present, negotiations are continuing. Cush says expanding the route network to O'Hare and more flights at Kennedy is important to the airline's success.

Wish him luck, because the more competition, the more choices for business travelers. If he succeeds, his airline will be around a lot longer than Fly Girls.