Phoenix-Mesa Gateway Airport is stepping up its lobbying efforts to land a second airline - San Francisco-based Virgin America.
Virgin America - 25 percent owned by flamboyant British entrepreneur Richard Branson - is one of the few airlines in expansion mode as most of the industry cuts flights to deal with the slow economy.
The Virgin America Web site lists San Francisco to Phoenix as its seventh-most-requested route for expansion, and Gateway Marketing Director John Barry sees that as an opportunity to sell the east Mesa airport as the best destination if Virgin America does decide to fly into the Valley.
On Friday he sent an e-mail blast to a list of about 6,000 Gateway supporters urging them to contact the airline and advocate Phoenix-Mesa Gateway as the best airport for serving metro Phoenix.
"They were looking for feedback, so we decided to provide it," Barry said.
Virgin America officials declined to comment on Gateway’s e-mail but did release a statement.
"Phoenix was on the list of our initial 40 prospective cities, and we hope to expand there in the next 3 to 5 years. It is on our wish list, but nothing is imminent," the statement said.
Barry said Virgin America was one of six carriers whose executives he met with at an airport-airline networking conference in March in Fort Worth, Texas. He declined to identify the others.
Virgin America has been interested in serving the Valley ever since the company began flights in 2007, he said. But the airline does not yet fly to the Valley.
It has established hubs in San Francisco and Los Angeles and flies primarily cross-country, coast-to-coast routes and along the Pacific coast from San Diego to Seattle, according to the airline's Web site. But Phoenix is one of 30 cities the airline said it wanted to serve by 2012.
Barry conceded Gateway would face tough competition from Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport as the airline's preferred destination in the Valley because Sky Harbor enjoys logistics advantages from serving many carriers.
But Gateway provides its own benefits such as easy parking and baggage handling for customers. Also Virgin America would enjoy a captive market on the east side of the Valley with no competition on the route to San Francisco, he said.
Currently the only airline serving Gateway is Las Vegas-based Allegiant Air, which uses the East Valley air field as a hub to 16 destinations, mostly smaller communities in the northern half of the country. It is oriented to leisure travelers flying to Arizona for the warm winters.
Barry said he remains in contact with other carriers in his effort to attract more airlines to the East Valley, but "nothing is warm with anyone else."