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Virgin America enters Newark Airport with a party

Branson enters airport
Richard Branson joins the party.Ben Popken

Virgin America on Tuesday rolled out red carpet atop the grey carpet at Newark Liberty International to celebrate service to Los Angeles and San Francisco.

Mimosas and champagne were served from a sidebar to the side gate A33 and party anthem "Like A G6" blasted as airline and airport staff and members of the press mingled among passengers waiting to fly to L.A.

Virgin America started offering the flights from Newark last week -- directly competing with United Airlines.

"The fares have been astronomically high and they've already dropped 40 percent since we announced we're coming on this route," Sir Richard Branson told a press conference on Tuesday.

In an interview on CNBC's "Squawk Box" earlier in the day, Branson said United slashed fares to damage Virgin. "Obviously, we've matched the fares," he said. "The public is going to be very, very happy with that."

Virgin negotiated to lease takeoff and landing slots and gates from American Airlines during the legacy carrier's bankruptcy proceedings.

"It's going to be the best terminal in Newark," Branson told NBC News. "They're going to make this terminal look beautiful," he said, gesturing with both palms outstretched to the grey ceiling and carpets.

"It's always good to get homework from Sir Richard," said David Samson, chairman of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, which operates the terminal.

"Richard likes to have things his own way," Virgin America CEO David Cush told NBC News. "We're quite satisfied with the terminal."

Rather than introducing nightclub touches -- like mood lighting Virgin America flights are known for -- the first priority, Cush said, is to fix the TSA security line. Passengers currently queue in a long, single-file line down a narrow corridor.

TSA queue
A long, single-file line to security.Ben Popken

Otherwise, Virgin's plans for competing in Newark are to fight the "same way we fought American in Dallas and Chicago," Cush said. "Having a better product."

Competition welcome
"United connects Newark Airport and the New York area to more destinations around the world with more flights than any other airline. We offer the most frequent service from Newark to Los Angeles and San Francisco and a range of options for business and leisure travelers, and we welcome the new competition," United told CNBC.

United reacted to the news in December of their new neighbors at Newark by doubling the number of non-stop flights they offered to San Francisco and Los Angeles, essentially running an hourly transcontinental shuttle service.

The response was "overblown," said Cush, but, "there's not much harm to Virgin America. It does more harm to their shareholders."

Virgin America -- which offers leather seats, on-demand food and beverage service, and in-flight Wi-Fi across its fleet -- received the highest rankings in the annual Airline Quality Report released this week. United Airlines came in last.

Heading to Los Angeles to tour Paramount Studio tours -- and to "party" -- United States Postal Service retiree John Rogers and his wife, Melene, said they chose their $300-per-person roundtrip tickets on Virgin over United because they found United Airlines "slow and arrogant" on the phone. Plus, they could upgrade to first class on Virgin for only $100.

Newark is "easier to get to from the city," said Allison Fricht, a student at University of Southern California. "I hate JFK," she said noting the congestion and delays. A taxi between Manhattan and JFK carries a flat fare of $52. A 20-minute New Jersey train ride to the airport from Penn Station runs $12.

Seema Gulrajani, a 27-year-old flying to L.A. to pursue her master's degree in occupational therapy, chose Virgin because of comfort. "I can sleep easily," she said.

Purchasing her tickets well in advance, she paid $130, while finding fares on United for around $150. Plus, she said, "it's better than flying on a dingy plane."