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As our venerated and venerable leader, Arthur Frommer pointed out in last week's blog post, low-fare carrier Virgin America spread its wings to start booking flights between New York, San Francisco and Los Angeles yesterday. The new carrier promises plenty of in-flight entertainment, power ports at every seat, better food than other airlines and a plush first class section on flights starting August 8. But there's just one catch: they're not actually allowed to fly yet.

Click through to VA's News page and you'll see a warning: "Virgin America does not currently have authority from the Department of Transportation to operate the services for which your ticket is being issued. You may, upon request, cancel your ticket and obtain a full refund at any time before we start operations. If we have not started operations by the date of your ticketed travel, we will make reasonable efforts to arrange substitute air transportation for you, at a cost of up to 200% of your Virgin America ticket. If we cannot arrange substitute transportation for you, we will refund to you 200% of the price paid for your Virgin America ticket."

So what's up? Virgin America has had a long, tortured taxi towards takeoff, with various elements including larger airlines and the flight attendants' union AFA-CWA opposing its existence because of their suspicions that Virgin Group chairman Richard Branson was somehow in control. Branson, you see, is British, and it's a no-no for any furriner to have significant influence over an airline flying primarily US domestic routes.

So Virgin America pledged to do a whole bunch of things to satisfy its opponents that it's a "U.S. citizen," most amazingly including firing their CEO, Fred Reid, within six months. Reid, a former president of Delta Airlines, is as American as George Washington eating an apple pie, but he became a target because Branson approved his hiring.

The result: Virgin America has a "finding of fitness" allowing it to sell tickets, but must still get formal DOT approval that it has satisfied the final conditions before it can fly. Remember: none of this has to do with the airline's financial stability or safety. It's just politics.

When's that last approval coming through? Bill Mosley, press officer for the DOT, said it'll come when it comes, though he had a thoroughly optimistic tone.

"We asked Virgin America to submit a number of documents we're still reviewing Â? we can't say when we'll be finished, but it will be as soon as possible," he said.

Abby Lunardini, a spokeswoman for Virgin America, described the final DOT approval as "kind of a formality Â? not something that the traveling public should be worried about." The airline is still working through their final issues with the DOT, but "it's all going smoothly and moving forward." An August 8th launch allows a "very safe window" for the DOT to approve the airline's documents, she said, and the airline is confident they'll be done by then.

So yes: buying your tickets from Virgin America is, right now, a bit of a gamble. On the other hand, if they aren't flying by the time you're supposed to leave, you'll get double your money back or a ticket on another airline.

We'll be on one of Virgin America's first flights and we'll tell you about the experience next month.

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