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Virgin America's Flights Set for Aug. 8

Maverick airline Virgin America plans to begin selling tickets Thursday, giving travelers their first chance to book a trip on planes equipped to pamper passengers even when they aren't flying first-class.

The airline's inaugural flights are scheduled to take off August 8 from Los Angeles and New York's John F. Kennedy International Airport and arrive at roughly the same time late that morning in San Francisco, which will serve as Virgin America's hub.

Tickets for the flights were expected to go on sale Thursday around 3 a.m. PDT through Virgin America's Web site and customer service number, 877-359-8474. A one-way ticket between Los Angeles and San Francisco will start at $44, while one-way tickets for the San Francisco-New York flights will start at $139.

Burlingame-based Virgin America also will sell tickets for flights to Las Vegas and Washington, D.C., scheduled to start in September and October.

Conceived by British billionaire Richard Branson, Virgin America is promising to shake up the U.S. airline industry by making flying a more luxurious experience at affordable prices. The airline has raised nearly $300 million from investors, led by Branson's Virgin Group, which controls the British-based Virgin Atlantic airline.

Virgin America's fleet of aircraft will include the latest high-tech equipment so passengers can order food from their seats, watch movies or television, listen to music and even plan their travel itinerary using Google Inc.'s popular online maps. Access to the maps will be built into Virgin America's entertainment system.

Big Opposition

A first-class ticket, which will start at $149 for one-way flights between San Francisco and Los Angeles, will buy seating in a massage chair, among other amenities.

Virgin had to weather an unusual amount of turbulence to reach this point.

Several major U.S. airlines, including AMR's American, Delta Air Lines and Continental Airlines , tried to block Virgin America from entering the market. The airlines argued that Virgin America's ties to Branson violated federal laws capping foreign control of a U.S. airline at 25%.

The U.S. Department of Transportation sided with the airlines and initially denied Virgin America's application late last year.

Refusing to give up, Virgin America made a series of concessions that included selling more stock to U.S. investors and making a commitment to replace its current chief executive, Fred Reid, who was hired by Branson.

Reid, a former Delta executive, must step down by mid-November to comply with the order that cleared Virgin America for takeoff.

"It's slightly bittersweet for me, but the important thing is Virgin America gets to fly," Reid said.

The airline already has about 400 workers and expects to expand its payroll to more than 1,000 employees during the next year. Virgin America plans to be flying to at least 10 cities by August 2008.

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