Virgin America begins service to Palm Springs starting today.(KIMBERLY PIERCEALL/STAFF PHOTO)

BY KIMBERLY PIERCEALL
STAFF WRITER
kpierceall@pe.com

Published: 15 December 2011 01:43 PM

The mayor of Palm Springs looked worried. As Virgin America’s first flight from San Francisco descended into his normally sunny resort city Thursday afternoon, Steve Pougnet saw clouds outside the aircraft’s window.

Lots of them. And Sir Richard Branson, the billionaire entrepreneur and founder of most companies with the word “Virgin” prefacing them, was sitting in front of him in first class having never visited Palm Springs until now.

“I could never afford to go, the airfares were so high,” he joked before the plane took off from San Francisco International Airport Thursday afternoon.

After walking down the stairs of the plane onto a red carpet in Palm Springs, Branson approached a podium rubbing his hands together for warmth in front of a wind-chilled, scarf-wearing crowd.

“We came here under false pretenses,” Branson joked, referring to the chilly climate.

Nonetheless, Branson said the airline and Palm Springs were, “made for each other,” since they serve similar customers looking for a quality experience at a decent price.

The daily flights, available through April 30, are scheduled to arrive at Palm Springs at 6:05 p.m. and depart at 6:50 p.m.

Fares start at $79 one way between Palm Springs and San Francisco and $169 to New York. Travelers flying to and from New York would make a single stop in San Francisco, but would stay on the plane.

Virgin America, which launched in 2007 with a nonstop flight linking LAX and New York, uses a fleet of Airbus 320 aircraft equipped with a purple-hued mood lighting and satellite equipped television screens behind each seat. David Cush, the airline’s CEO, had his screen tuned to a financial cable news network to keep an eye on the stock markets during the less-than-two-hour flight.

Cush said he had wanted to add Palm Springs to its routes but, “it was tough to make the numbers work,” he said. “This year, we just decided to take a leap of faith.”

The airline now has 16 destinations including Palm Springs. Cush said he expects the route to sell 80 percent of the seats available during its seasonal run based on market demand.

Palm Springs already has existing nonstop flights to San Francisco and connecting flights to New York, but the airline’s executives and city leaders said Virgin America’s arrival would make fares more competitive and offer a more upscale experience deserving of a resort destination.

“Up until now, the options have been pretty pedestrian,” Cush said, adding that his airline believes air travel shouldn’t just be a utilitarian exercise but also fun and entertaining.

Cush said the airline hasn’t taken a hard look at Ontario International Airport as an option, or any of the other secondary Southern California airports, because it early on decided to target hubs which would be closer to their core customers. The airline waited four years to get the chance to move into Chicago’s O’Hare Airport rather than move into the smaller Chicago-Midway right away, for example, he said.

The airline’s arrival to Palm Springs was bolstered by the city’s offer of $50,000 through its airport’s incentive program and another $150,000 from the Palm Springs Desert Resorts Authority to support marketing the route. Pougnet said it keeps Palm Springs competitive adding that he doesn’t want his constituents to have to drive to Ontario for a cheaper flight.

“A flight to New York has been the holy grail for at least 15 years,” said John Raymond, director of the city’s community and economic development, who was among local leaders and media who gathered on the tarmac to witness the plane’s arrival. That Virgin America, an airline known for attracting a younger, hipper traveler, would provide that route, was icing on the cake, he said.

Andy Rounds, 42, and Al Harman, 48, had no idea they were booking seats on the very first San Francisco-to-Palm Springs route when they planned their annual golfing trip a couple of weeks ago to meet two longtime buddies from Moreno Valley and San Bernardino.

“This fare couldn’t be beat,” Rounds said. Then they got to San Francisco International Airport and realized Richard Branson would be on their flight.

“Holy smokes,” Rounds said.

Donning hard-to-miss cowboy hats, the two helped themselves to the complimentary cocktails at the gate and a photo-op with Rat Pack impersonators.

The real-life Dean Martin, Frank Sinatra and Sammy Davis Jr. were fixtures in Palm Springs’ celebrity heyday. For two out of the three lookalikes hired by the airline though, Thursday’s trip was their first to the city. Would the new route lead to more impersonating gigs in the resort?

“Without a doubt,” said John DeMers, a convincing Sinatra.