Virgin America Drops SeaWorld in Next Blow to Orca Parks

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SeaWorld Killer Whale
Killer whale "Tilikum" appears during its performance in its show "Believe" at SeaWorld in Orlando, Florida, on Mar. 30, 2011. Photographer: Gerardo Mora/Getty Images

Virgin America Inc. became the latest airline to cut ties with SeaWorld Entertainment Inc., following pressure from animal-rights activists who object to keeping killer whales in captivity.

Virgin America dropped SeaWorld from its Elevate rewards program, which lets customers earn points toward travel and merchandise by spending money at the parks, Abby Lunardini, a spokeswoman for the airline, said in an e-mail yesterday. Alaska Air Group Inc. said today it has stopped selling tickets to SeaWorld through its website.

The decision marks a victory for groups, such as People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, that have targeted airlines, artists and consumers in a campaign that has hurt SeaWorld’s business and sent its stock price to a record low. Southwest Airlines Co., which had SeaWorld animals painted on its planes, ended a 26-year marketing relationship with the theme park in July.

“PETA is calling on SeaWorld to develop ocean sanctuaries in which orcas could be rehabilitated and finally have the opportunity to engage in natural behaviors” and be observed by visitors, the organization said in a statement.

Fred Jacobs, a spokesman for SeaWorld, said Virgin America’s move involved the airline’s online store for frequent fliers. He said he had no independent confirmation of other airlines ending SeaWorld ticket sales.

“SeaWorld works with many types of sales partners, but the vast majority of our tickets are sold through direct channels,” he said in an e-mail.

New Low

SeaWorld, based in Orlando, Florida, rose 1.3 percent to $18.15 at the close in New York. Yesterday, the stock closed at the lowest since the company was taken public at $27 a share by the private-equity firm Blackstone Group LP in April 2013.

The shares fell 33 percent on Aug. 13, after SeaWorld said the controversy over its treatment of captive whales had hurt attendance.

Virgin America, based in Burlingame, California, began service in 2007 and, while separate from Virgin Group Ltd., is partly owned by its founder, billionaire Richard Branson. The airline, which filed for an initial public offering in July, has ties to London-based Virgin Group, a collection of retail, travel, music and communications businesses that includes Virgin Atlantic Airways Ltd.

Branson drew complaints this year because of his travel agency’s sale of tour packages with trips to SeaWorld and other parks where whales and dolphins perform.

Virgin Unite

Virgin Unite, Virgin Group’s non-profit foundation, on Sept. 30 asked theme parks and resorts it works with to pledge not to accept whales and dolphins that were taken from the wild after Feb. 14 of this year, “except when necessitated by the needs of rehabilitation, rescue or support for endangered species.”

SeaWorld’s properties in Orlando, San Antonio, and San Diego are among the theme parks that signed the pledge. The company participated in a six-month-long engagement process with Virgin, according to Jacobs. Virgin Holidays, a U.K. tour operator, continues to sell SeaWorld tickets.

Alaska Air stopped selling tickets to SeaWorld through a third-party vendor that works with a variety of theme parks, according to Bobbie Egan, a spokeswoman for the Seattle-based carrier. Alaska Air doesn’t have any other contractual relationship with SeaWorld, she said.

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