Virgin America arrives on Maui: The Virgin has landed

KAHULUI – Noting that more than 3.3 million people from the West Coast traveled to Hawaii last year, Virgin America aimed for some of that business Thursday as the San Francisco-based carrier launched its Maui service, about a month after launching service on Oahu.

“There is plenty of room in the market for Virgin America,” said Steve Forte, the airline’s chief operating officer.

Frequent fliers in the 8-year-old airline’s Elevate loyalty program also wanted Hawaii added to the flight list, Forte explained as a reason for expanding the airline’s routes.

“This is a very important market for us,” he added, while speaking inside the Virgin America plane that bought the airline’s first passengers to Maui.

While the airline only flies to 23 destinations, Forte said that “the thing that really defines us is our product.”

“The thing that is really special about Virgin America is out teammates. They understand what service is and what good service is,” he said. “Anyone can put equipment on an airplane, (but) how you great your guest is what’s important.”

The airline puts a twist on the usual air travel experience. It has “mood lighting” in its cabin (purple and pink tones) and has touch screens for passengers to order food or drinks. Passengers have all-access passes to films and entertainment.

“They treat us like we are all in first class,” said passenger Craig Bandalin of Novato, Calif., who was in coach on the inaugural flight. He gushed about the leather seats and comfortable headrests.

Bandalin said that the service was good and the airplane was clean. (Airbus A320s are being used for the Hawaii routes.) Virgin America’s planes are equipped with fuel-saving “sharklet” wingtips, allowing the airline to operate flights more efficiently, especially over long-haul routes, officials said.

Bandalin and his wife, Adriana, were all smiles when they disembarked with 128 other passengers at Kahului Airport on Thursday afternoon. They were greeted by Hawaiian music, hula and lei, along with a Made in Maui goodie bag courtesy of the county Office of Economic Development.

Maui-based employees, along with Virgin America officials, cheered as the inaugural flight from San Francisco landed. The plane was showered with water from Kahului Airport Rescue and Fire trucks.

Thursday’s flight began daily service between San Francisco and Maui, making Virgin America the newest airline to enter Maui’s air travel market.

With an aircraft capacity of around 140 passengers, the carrier could bring thousands more visitors to Maui County, said Terryl Vencl, executive director of the Maui Visitors Bureau.

“West Coast knows us,” Vencl said. But “this will give them another wonderful option to use.”

She added that visitors also could come from “feeder markets” such as the Midwest and East Coast, noting that those visitors can connect in San Francisco (Virgin America’s hub) and continue on to Maui.

This could also generate interest for first-time visitors to Maui, Vencl said.

“They stay longer, and they spend more,” she said of first-time visitors.

Virgin America’s Midwest and East Coast market includes Chicago, New York, Boston and Washington, D.C., as well as cities in New Jersey, Florida and Texas.

Maui residents also will be happy to know that the airline flies to Las Vegas, Seattle and Portland, Ore., along with several California destinations.

“The more seats we have available coming in, the easier it is for us to market (Maui),” said Mayor Alan Arakawa, who attended Thursday’s festivities and greeted incoming passengers.

As competition for tourist dollars gets more fierce, having more airline seats to Maui helps the island reach its target market – the higher-end visitors, Arakawa said.

Overall, with Virgin’s entry into Hawaii, the flights will generate an estimated $138.6 million in annual visitor speeding and $14.8 million in state tax revenue, according to David Uchiyama, vice president of brand management for the Hawai’i Tourism Authority.

San Francisco is one of Hawaii’s top visitor markets, Uchiyama said earlier this year in announcing Virgin America’s Hawaii flights.

Virgin America launched in 2007. It is a U.S.-controlled and -operated airline and is an entirely separate company from Virgin Atlantic.

Sir Richard Branson’s Virgin Group is a minority share investor in Virgin America. Branson is the founder of the Virgin Group, which has businesses in various sectors including mobile technology, financial services, music, travel and health and wellness.

Virgin America has developed a loyal group of fliers and earned many awards since 2007. Accolades include being named both “Best U.S. Airline” in Conde Nast Traveler Readers’ Choice Awards and “Best Domestic Airline” in Travel + Leisure World’s Best Awards for the past seven consecutive years, according to airline officials.

One of those loyal fliers is Greg Small of Seattle, who was traveling with his fiancee, Lara Watson. The couple are expecting their first child in the next two months, and they were among the first passengers off of the plane and were greeted with cheers and lei.

Small said that he flies everywhere with Virgin America and called the airline and staff efficient and attentive.

“This is pretty amazing, fantastic,” he said as he surveyed the airport with its music and festivities Thursday afternoon. The couple said they hoped to return to Maui.

The airline received Travel + Leisure’s award for “Best Domestic Airline for Food” in 2014. A first-class passenger from Hawaii gets speciality cocktails, including POG mimosas and a Makena rum cocktail; entrees include miso-yaki salmon, crispy Thai chicken and spicy ginger pepper noodles.

* Melissa Tanji can be reached at