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Airline to begin direct Sydney-Los Angeles service this month

APIA , Samoa ( Samoa Observer, February 10, 2009) – V Australia’s first Boeing 777 jet touched down at Sydney Airport during the weekend, marking the launch of a new international carrier on the trans-Pacific route between Australia and the United States west coast.

The arrival of the new plane for the Virgin Blue offshoot airline is expected to spark a price war on tickets to Los Angeles as V Australia goes head-to-head on the route with Qantas, United Airlines and newcomer Delta.

On board the delivery flight check captain Andrew Grierson, a former pilot with Dubai-based carrier Emirates, said it was exciting to be a part of the launch.

"It’s an opportunity to be part of something new," Mr Grierson said.

Before touchdown at 1010 AEDT the new plane - the first Australian-owned B777-300ER and the first aircraft of its type to operate on the trans-Pacific route - was due to make a low flyover of Sydney but did not do so due to low cloud.

The jet left the US planemaker’s home town of Seattle on Friday after UK billionaire Richard Branson, chairman of the Virgin Group, attended a handover ceremony that was more like a beach party than an official delivery event.

Sir Richard, wearing board shorts and zinc cream, accepted the keys to V Australia’s new plane at the event in the Boeing hangar after frolicking with bikini clad women and US cheerleaders.

The aircraft then took off for LA with Sir Richard, Aussie celebrities including Nip/Tuck actor Julian McMahon and singer and actor Holly Valance, Virgin Blue staff competition winners and several reporters on board.

Upon arrival in LA, Sir Richard announced two new routes for V Australia - Melbourne to LA and Sydney to Johannasburg, South Africa.

"Recession ... What recession?" Sir Richard said to a crowd of travel industry professionals gathered in LA to greet the plane.

"The way to get out of recessions is to try to expand out of recessions, create more jobs, bring airfares down and try to offer better quality of products."

The self-made billionaire then departed on his private jet bound for his home in the British Virgin Islands, while V Australia’s plane prepared to depart for Sydney.

V Australia has ordered a further six of the jets.

The plane is owned by International Lease Finance Corp (ILFC) and leased to V Australia.

V Australia received its first jet three months later than expected because of machinist strikes at the Boeing factory in Seattle

Sir Richard said in Seattle that if Boeing did not resolve its labour issues the company risks losing orders.

"The strike hurt hundreds of thousands of our passengers," he told journalists. "It messed up Virgin Blue in Australia, it ruined people’s Christmas holidays."

But any concerns over potential future aircraft delays were overshadowed by Virgin Blue chief executive Brett Godfrey’s excitement about the launch of V Australia.

"This is a new airline for Australia," Mr Godfrey said. "Australia has never had a second international airline."

Mr Godfrey acknowledged the airline was launching into a soft market, with demand for air travel declining because of the economic slowdown around the world.

But he told journalists Virgin Blue would not follow Qantas’ lead and undertake a capital raising in the domestic equity market.

"We’re not looking at that track," Mr Godfrey said.

Virgin Blue’s balance sheet is under pressure with V Australia’s $65 million in start-up costs and load factors - a measure of paying passengers - at 40 per cent between now and June.

Mr Godfrey said V Australia would break even in 18 months and he expected bookings to increase once word got about about the aircraft’s features and fares.

"We will bring some healthy competition to the route," Mr Godfrey said.

"The combination of our Virgin service and the outstanding features and comfort levels on board the B777 will be a winner on the trans-Pacific route."

V Australia’s plane carries 360 passengers in a three class configuration - business class with lie-flat seats, premium economy and economy.

The aircraft boasts two in-flight bars, cutting edge in-flight entertainment systems from Panasonic and mood lighting throughout the cabin.

V Australia will make its debut commercial flight from Sydney to Los Angeles on 27 February.

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