Virgin America CEO David Cush doesn’t want his airline to the biggest, just the most fun

27 Nov

 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 and Boston, serving about 5 million passengers annually — a tiny 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.

The past month has been a little rocky, though. Since the airline switched to a new reservation system on 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 and the airline says it hopes to have it fully resolved by the first week in December.

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.



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