Virgin America CEO David Cush believes flying doesn't have to be painful, and he's using everything from technology to personality tests to improve the experience.
NEW YORK — Virgin America CEO David Cush believes flying doesn’t have to be painful. He remembers when boarding a plane was exciting and wants to bring back that joy.
That is why every job applicant, including pilots, flight attendants and baggage handlers, takes a personality test. He wants employees who are hard-wired with positive outlooks on life.
Virgin America, which is partly owned by Richard Branson, the founder of the edgy British airline Virgin Atlantic, doesn’t aim to be the biggest carrier. It only flies between big cities, such as Los Angeles, Chicago, Boston and Seattle, serving about 5 million passengers annually — a fraction of the size of major airlines like Delta and United.
But Cush wants Virgin America to be recognized for superior quality — and he appears to be succeeding. The airline, based near San Francisco, has routinely ranked at the top of customer surveys.
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The past month has been a little rocky, though. Since the airline switched to a new reservation system Oct. 28, customers have not been able to change or cancel flights online or select seats on Virgin America’s website. Instead, they’ve had to call the airline or wait until they got to the airport.
Cush emailed a letter to the 56,000 passengers affected, apologizing for the problem. The airline says it hopes to have the glitch fully resolved soon.
Virgin America’s fleet is made up of brand-new Airbus A319s and A320s, fuel-efficient aircraft that seat 119 and 146. Each is equipped with TVs for every passenger, colorful mood lighting and Wi-Fi.
Instead of flight attendants dictating meal times, passengers buy food when they want it by pressing a few buttons on their TV.
“If you talk to people about what is most frustrating about air travel, what comes out is the loss of control,” Cush says. “We’ve been pushing to give people control again.”
Virgin isn’t the first U.S. airline to use TVs and friendly service to attract customers. Cush acknowledges some copying as he works to create the California version of New York-based JetBlue.
“JetBlue came around and had a different type of service. That opened my eyes,” he says.
But his quest to create a fun airline has been stymied by more serious concerns like high fuel prices and a recession whose impact is still being felt.
Since it started flying in August 2007, Virgin America has lost $661.4 million. Cush expects to become profitable in 2012, a year later than originally planned.
The privately held company is owned by a New York hedge fund, Richard Branson’s Virgin Group and private investors, including Donald J. Carty, the former head of American Airlines’ parent company, AMR Corp.
Cush, 51, spent most of his career at American and left to head up Virgin America just four months after the airline started flying.
The Shreveport, La.-native is a graduate of Southern Methodist University — yet a giant Louisiana State University football fan.
In his spare time, Cush likes to swim and fish. In college, he was a DJ, spinning Bruce Springsteen and Pink Floyd tunes.
Cush visited The Associated Press in New York. Below are excerpts, edited for clarity, of the interview where he spoke about the health of American, his favorite seat and why risk-taking is necessary to survive.
Q: How is Virgin America different?
A: The biggest difference is our in-flight entertainment system. It’s a 9-inch screen — larger than JetBlue’s. We’ve got live TV, on-demand movies, about 3,000 MP3s. We have food and drink on-demand. We’re the only airline in the world that has it. You order from the seatback, swipe your credit card. They see seat 12C wants a turkey sandwich and a Heineken and bring it to you on a tray. Carts aren’t blocking the aisles.
Q: Who came up with that?
A: This was designed before my time but as I tell people, as time goes on and memories fade it will become my idea.
Q: How much more are people willing to pay for these services?
A: The model is getting them to pay the same amount with a much lower production cost.
Q: In Dallas, you’re telling fliers to “dump your older airline for a younger, hotter one.” American responded by slashing fares to San Francisco and Los Angeles. Can you survive this fare war?
A: We’ll survive. At current fares, it will not be a profitable route, but it wouldn’t be such a loss-making one where we would consider any type of reduction. You have to be in Dallas-Fort Worth if you’re going to be a business airline.
Q: In one ad you refer to American as running a cattle car. If you feel that way, how could you have worked there for 22 years?
A: It wasn’t always that way. The industry, out of survival, did a lot of things. One of the reasons I left was because I didn’t think the industry had to operate that way.
Q: Do you think that American is on the right path?
A: It’s hard to tell. There’s a culture there that is perhaps a bit risk-averse. In the past, it was always an airline that was willing to accept risk. The industry’s consolidated around it and all of a sudden American finds itself in third place. I don’t know if they have the answer. I do know their top guys. They’re smart, capable but at some point you need to stick your neck out a little bit if you’re going to get out of a rut.
Q: Are you a risk-taker?
A: Absolutely. But I don’t take unnecessary risk and I always have an exit strategy.
Q: When you fly your own airline you always pick the second row of coach. Why?
A: I get to watch the interaction between our in-flight teammates and the customers in first. It’s a nice seat, 4A.
Q: A window.
A: I’m a window guy. Our in-flight entertainment system has Google Maps. You zoom in when you see something on the ground you’re interested in.
Q: How would you describe yourself as a boss?
A: I’m probably a tough guy to work for. I’m pretty demanding and part of the reason is the airline business is a demanding business. We have very little margin for error in building this into a successful company. We have 2,500 people that rely on us for a paycheck.
Q: How much patience do you have for unprofitable routes?
A: We stopped service to two different places. One because we needed the aircraft, that was Orange County, (Calif.). We didn’t see that as a big strategic need. The other is Toronto. We misjudged the market.
Q: Did you fire the guy who pushed that route?
A: That was me, so no.
Q: How do you unwind after leaving the office?
A: I do a lot of yoga. It’s a nice way to separate the mind from what you’ve gone through all day.