Virgin America is interested in providing service at John Wayne Airport, which has experienced a significant drop in passengers this year because of an unprecedented economic downturn in the airline industry.
Abby Lunardini, a spokeswoman for Virgin America, said Friday that the San Francisco-based carrier applied for slots at the Orange County airport in October, but the airline has not decided whether to begin service yet.
"We are exploring our future expansion opportunities. A range of options are on the table," Lunardini said. "We are pleased the airport has capacity for new entrants, but nothing hard and fast has been set."
Virgin America is a U.S.-controlled and U.S.-operated airline that is a separate company from Virgin Atlantic. Sir Richard Branson's Virgin Group is a minority shareholder in Virgin America, which started operations in August 2007.
The airline is considering five departures a day from Orange County, but Lunardini said their destinations have not been determined. Airport officials say, however, that Virgin America is considering flying to and from its hub at San Francisco International Airport.
United Airlines and American Eagle now offer a total of eight flights a day from John Wayne to San Francisco.
Before Virgin America can begin service, the airport commission and the Orange County Board of Supervisors must approve the new slots. If everything falls into place, Virgin America could begin service as early as April.
"It would be exciting for us to get a new carrier," said Jenny Wedge, a spokeswoman for John Wayne Airport. "It would help us bounce back from the downturn and strengthen our position."
Because of a spike in fuel prices last summer and a deepening recession, the number of passengers at John Wayne Airport fell 10.2% during the first 11 months of this year, compared to the same period in 2007. The airport handled nearly 10 million passengers last year. Aviation consultants predict that the declines will continue into next year.
Lunardini said that the airline's executives are not discouraged by the downturn and that they believe the future travel market will be robust. She said the airline is posed to take advantage of future growth with a new fleet of fuel-efficient aircraft.
In addition to Virgin America, airport commissioners and county supervisors will consider approving slots for Air Canada, which has been on the airport's waiting list since 2001. The international carrier has not been able to locate at John Wayne because of the lack of customs and immigration facilities. Other airlines on the waiting list are AirTran, Horizon Air and WestJet.