Virgin's new U.S. airline debuts

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Today, a new discount airline, Virgin America, began selling tickets at its website. New York to San Francisco fares start at $278 round-trip. Flights start August 8.

This is good news for travelers flying across country because Virgin America is expected to undercut the fares offered by other airlines to win passengers on key routes. For example, the inaugural trans-continental route (between San Francisco International airport and JFK airport) starts Aug. 8 with $138 one-way fares, compared with JetBlue's recent offer of $209 one-way fares (out of nearby Oakland airport to JFK).

Virgin America's hub is in San Francisco, with nonstop flights to New York City, Las Vegas, Los Angeles, and Washington, D.C. (To see the full combination of routes from various cities, check out Virgin America's current route map.) Virgin America will serve as many as 10 cities within a year of operation, and up to 30 cities within five years

Virgin America will raise the bar on the level of service expected in economy class. (Remember, British parent company Virgin Atlantic is the airline that invented seatback entertainment systems, which currently offer 54 channels of entertainment.)

In a great perk, every seat will have an electric 110-volt outlet, so you can power your laptop or other electronic device for long transcontinental flights. Each coach seat will boast 32 inches of legroom (which is an inch or two more than the industry standard for economy-class), and the "reclining pivot is forward and up an inch to spare the knees of the passenger behind you." And did I mention that the seats are leather?

The 9-inch seatback touchscreens will allow you entertainment options including 25 on-demand movies for $8 a pop; free live satellite TV channels such as ESPN (and its four sister channels), CNN, FX, Independent Film Channel, and the Food Channel; free interactive Google maps; and an ability to order your in-flight meal electronically. You can even use your seatback system to swipe your credit card to make any on-board purchases (primarily food). You'll also be able to send instant messages to fellow passengers who agree to receive them. (You'll have complete control over who can send you messages, in case you're worried about textual harassment.)

Tickets are for sale through and Orbitz.

[Update 7/22: JetBlue and Southwest are lowering their prices to compete with Virgin America.

Related: YouTube has a two-minute video of how Virgin America's seatback TVs work.)

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