- The Washington Times - Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Upstart airline Virgin America is seeking a little help from someone in getting its wings — you.

Since the U.S. Transportation Department rejected its application in December to begin flying, the airline has been actively courting the public to join its lobbying efforts to reverse the decision.

On Jan. 17, the airline debuted www.letvafly.com — a Web site aimed at instilling brand loyalty for an airline that hasn’t taken to the skies. Virgin America says it has registered 5.5 million hits, generated 21,000 online signatures from supporters, and even sold T-shirts and coffee mugs with the “Let VA Fly” logo.

“It has been a terrific response in a week and a half,” airline spokesman Gareth Edmondson-Jones said.

The Web site includes a feature that automatically sends e-mails to lawmakers and Transportation Department officials. Mr. Edmondson-Jones said 50,000 such e-mails have been sent. It also includes testimonials from California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and the San Francisco Giants baseball team.

The airline also has circulated promotional videos on YouTube.com and other Internet sites.

“We’re tapping into people’s broad dissatisfaction with [major] airlines,” Chief Executive Officer Fred Reid said. “After looking at the Web site, people begin to say, ‘I feel strongly enough that I want to try this and let this airline exist, and I don’t want politics to get in the way of certifying this great idea.’ ”

To boost its potential fan base, the airline said yesterday that if approved it will add service to Washington Dulles International, Los Angeles, San Diego and Las Vegas airports.

The airline also said it will let the public choose the next four cities by voting on letvafly.com beginning today.

Virgin America filed its initial application to fly in December 2005 and soon after announced its first route: San Francisco, its base, to New York’s John F. Kennedy International Airport. But the Transportation Department on Dec. 27 rejected the application on the grounds that the airline had too much foreign control.

Virgin America, the brainchild of British entrepreneur and billionaire Richard Branson, who heads the British business conglomerate Virgin Group, on Jan. 17 filed a revised ownership application that it says meets federal regulations requiring all domestic airlines to be at least 75 percent owned and controlled by U.S. citizens.

The Transportation Department isn’t under any legal time frame to rule on Virgin America’s appeal.

Asking the public to take its side in a legal dispute with the government isn’t always smart for a company, said Kelly O’Keefe, a branding expect at Virginia Commonwealth University’s Adcenter. But because the Virgin brand is well known and well liked, the airline’s risk is minimal.

“I think it fits this brand quite well, and from a brand point of view, I don’t think they’re harming themselves,” he said.

And with the Virgin brand’s image as an innovative and risking-taking company — an image perpetuated by its outspoken founder, Mr. Branson — courting the public probably is Virgin America’s most natural and logical strategy, Mr. O’Keefe added.

“You couldn’t get away with this if you are Exxon — the public wouldn’t side with you,” he said. “But Virgin can.”

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