Virgin America Inc., the low-fare carrier partly owned by U.K. billionaire Richard Branson, is set to begin flights at Chicago O’Hare after an almost three-year effort to obtain gates at the second-busiest U.S. airport.
Daily nonstop flights will start May 25 between O’Hare and both Los Angeles International and San Francisco International, the closely held airline said today in a statement.
The carrier announced in May 2008 that it would seek to serve O’Hare, which is a hub for both American Airlines and United Continental Holdings Inc. Virgin America’s attempts were stymied because the city of Chicago had leased gates to incumbent airlines on an exclusive basis through 2018.
“It’s been a long road,” Virgin America Chief Executive David Cush said in an interview. The airline will have three daily round trips between San Francisco and Chicago and two between Los Angeles and the Illinois city.
The Burlingame, California-based carrier agreed to lease one gate in Terminal 3, Concourse L, for the flights. The slot became available as part of an agreement for Chicago to acquire the 11 Concourse L gates from Delta Air Lines Inc., the city said. Delta vacated the gates and moved into facilities used by Northwest Airlines Corp., which it acquired in October 2008.
Delta “is looking forward to working with city leaders to complete the transaction and ensure the best use of the facilities at the airport,” Trebor Banstetter, a spokesman for the Atlanta-based carrier, said in an e-mail.
Virgin America expects to lease the gate from Delta until June, when the city will take over the concourse, Cush said. Six of the concourse gates will be leased to American and five will be used by various airlines, including Virgin America, the city said in a statement.
Virgin America eventually may be interested in leasing a second gate, Cush said. The airline doesn’t plan to add additional flights in Chicago before spring 2012, he said.
The carrier, which began flights from Dallas-Fort Worth International on Dec. 1, also aims to start service at some point in Atlanta, the world’s busiest airport and Delta’s largest hub; Houston, a hub for United Continental; and Philadelphia, a base for US Airways Group Inc., Cush has said.
The airline’s top priority is to gain slots at Newark’s Liberty airport if flight limits are lifted there, he said today. Virgin America has sought access to Newark since 2007.