NEW YORK ( TheStreet) -- It just seems as if Virgin America (VA) got the timing right because the San Francisco-based airline is going public at one of the best times in the history of the airline industry.
The initial offering price for the airlines $23 a share. An hour after the opening bell, shares were trading at $29.20.
The airline industry has consolidated, discovered ancillary fees, committed to capacity discipline and watched its stocks soar, and on Friday CEO David Cush rang the opening bell at the Nasdaq. Then Virgin America began trading after raising $306 million in its IPO.
"It's a good day," Cush said in an interview Friday morning. "We've been working hard to get to this point. We feel fortunate that the markets are cooperating."
Virgin America first flew in 2007. Once it began flying, the carrier encountered rising fuel prices, a bad economy and the usual intense competition on the trans-continental routes it initially targeted.
"We started at the worst possible time you could start an airline -- at a commodities bubble, greeted by the great recession," Cush said. "We fought through some difficult times. We were always confident in the model, and once the economy stabilized, we could grow quickly, which is always expensive. But we saw the routes were profitable and we knew the network would respond."
Virgin is often compared to JetBlue (JBLU) , given its big city hub, its Airbus A320 fleet and its effort to offer a leisure experience at coach prices. But Cush noted that JetBlue "is a leisure airline, while we are a business airline" and said Virgin enjoys a 25% premium to JetBlue in revenue per available seat mile.
Additionally, Virgin will not follow JetBlue into a second aircraft type, he said.
The comparison Cush seems to like best is with Spirit (SAVE) , not surprisingly, since Spirit shares have risen 389% over the past three years.
Among airlines, "We probably resemble Spirit the most, from a production standpoint, although our product is clearly different," Cush said. "Spirit has a single-fleet type, flies point to point and stayed true to its low-cost model."
He said he will not emulate Spirit's 30% growth rate -- even though Wall Street loves growth.
Virgin, with 53 A320 family aircraft in its fleet, has five airplanes coming in 2015 and five in 2016. "Long-term, we think 10% to 15% per year is a responsible rate of growth, an amount we can grow profitably," he said.
The carrier will remain focused at San Francisco International, where it is the second-largest carrier with 10% of the market, and Los Angeles, where it has 5%, Cush said "We will poke around a bit in the middle of the country and the East Coast." By April, 12% of the network will be flights operating at Love Field in Dallas, while 6% to 7% will be flights from Dallas to LaGuardia in New York and National in Washington.
The competition has always been tough, even before Cush arrived at Virgin in 2007. For the preceding 18 months, other airlines had resisted the start-up effort, citing lack of clarity about Richard Branson's ownership and the potential violation of the limitation on foreign ownership of U.S. carriers.
More recently, "the competitive response from our primary competitors has been outsized," he said. Primary competitors include United (UAL) , which shares Virgin America's San Francisco hub and overlaps on 90% of its routes, and American (AAL) , with an 80% overlap.
So what? Virgin America on Friday joined the club with the big boys.
-- Written by Ted Reed in Charlotte, N.C.
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