Not long ago Virgin America Inc. had to battle two larger rivals for the space to fly out of Dallas Love Field. Now, a burgeoning number of flights there means Virgin is fighting to get planes off the ground on time.
“It’s our least-dependable airport in the country” due to a high volume of jets using each gate, Chief Executive Officer David Cush said in an interview. “We have more delays out of Love Field than LaGuardia right now.”
And that’s saying something, given that New York’s LaGuardia Airport has the worst on-time departure rate in the country, according to U.S. Department of Transportation statistics.
The delays reflect a surge in flying at the Dallas area’s secondary airport, which is closer to downtown than the main Dallas-Fort Worth International. Daily flights at Love Field are at a record this year following the expiration of a federal law that had limited the number of available nonstop destinations.
About 24 percent of all Love Field departures were delayed this year through May, the third most since 2006, DOT statistics show. That exceeded LaGuardia’s 23 percent. But the data show Virgin America actually did better in Dallas, with 22 percent of takeoffs running late compared with 24 percent in New York.
Virgin America began operating from Love Field in October after shifting from D/FW, and now has two gates with 19 daily departures. That means a tempo at each gate on par with Southwest Airlines Co., which has long been known for setting a fast pace on flight turnarounds.
“Most U.S. airlines are not used to running 10 operations per gate,” Cush said. “Even Southwest, with larger airplanes and longer stage lengths, that’s even a challenge for them. It’s a fallacy to think the industry can get up to 10 departures a day with any certainty.”
A more-typical number: seven to eight, Cush said.
Southwest, which accounts for 93 percent of Love Field passengers, is increasing departures to 180 a day as of Aug. 9 from 18 gates. That’s about a 53 percent increase since mid-October when the federal law ended. About 25 percent of its flights were delayed in the first five months of this year.
The average number of flights per gate can vary widely depending on issues including the size of aircraft and how quickly planes can be moved in and out, said Paul McGraw, vice president of operations and safety for Airlines for America, the industry’s Washington-based trade group.
“Seven to eight sounds about right,” he said. “Ten is pretty tight, but you could probably do it.”
Virgin America tangled with Southwest and Delta Air Lines Inc. last year to win Love Field gates that American Airlines had to give up to settle a federal lawsuit opposing its merger with US Airways. With access to only two of 20 gates, Burlingame, California-based Virgin America sees no prospects for growth there.
“We’re over maxed out,” Cush said. “We’re having trouble operating 19 flights a day out of two gates. I can’t see us adding more.”