I’ve recently posted a few back to back reviews of airline products that are not within the oneworld alliance. That’s a whole lot of cheating that’s been going on. So before you say it, I already know that I’m a dirty, low-down, two-timin’ hussy. I own it. It feels good.
Speaking of feeling good, that’s probably the opposite of what Virgin America (VX) would label themselves lately. It seems that just about every year someone writes an article pointing out how the carrier seems to be floundering and will likely go under soon. Seeing this year after year started to spark a thought in my head – “I better book a flight with Virgin America before they’re out of business.”
As a bit of an aviation nerd (more of a casual dweeb really…..) I do keep track of how many airlines I’ve flown, so the thought of permanently missing out on one annoyed me a bit. Virgin had started operating flights from Chicago (ORD) to both Los Angeles (LAX) and San Francisco, so it wasn’t even all too inconvenient for me to book a flight. After some poking around and hemming and hawing, I ended up booking a one way flight to Los Angeles with Virgin America on a Saturday morning. I really would have preferred to fly into San Francisco since I know some folks who live there, but LAX was much cheaper and I figured I could spend the weekend in a warmer climate (it was late fall at the time) and grab some In-N-Out.
As luck would have it about two weeks before my flight Virgin offered a status match to United and AA elite members. I figured there was no harm in asking for the match since I knew it was going to be a one time flight for me. Vrigin America upgraded my account to reflect top tier status (to match my AA EXP status) within a few days. With the sudden status increase I would be able to do a head to head comparison of the VX and AA premium cabin products.
VX’s elite system offers paid upgrades to their first class cabin, there are no complimentary offerings. These seem to be provided on a “first come, first serve” basis. No early requests, no fare class issues. You just sign into your reservation at the designated upgrade time and refresh your booking until the paid upgrade option becomes available. I did just that and was able to secure a seat in VX’s first class cabin for around $150. This brought my total ticket to just under $300 for a one way first class ticket.
Virgin operates out of ORD’s Terminal 3, which is dominated by AA’s operation and sees some departures for Spirit, WestJet, and Alaska Airlines. Since Terminal 3 is pretty much my 2nd home, I knew exactly where to go to access the Virgin America check-in desks. Despite checking in online, I always prefer to get an actual boarding pass for my trips, and this was no different. VX’s check-in staff were much friendlier and engaging than the agents I typically find staffing the vast line of AA desks. After a few minutes of chit chat about my first trip with the airline, I was handed my new boarding pass and was sent off to security.
This is where my experience soured a bit with Virgin America. Unfortunately the carrier shares their security checkpoint with the aforementioned airlines. There was quite a backlog of customers trying to get through the TSA screening, making it difficult to find any signage regarding an express lane for premium or status passengers. Seeing the dejected faces on the majority of those waiting in line, I headed back to the Vrigin desk and asked if they offered any fast track security access for their First class passengers. I was told that they did and that there should be a sign noting where to walk. I apologized and asked for someone to show me exactly where it was since the lines were so congested that no signage was visible. Someone quickly agreed to head over with me and directed me down the correct line. Sure enough, there was a line marked for fast track security but it was completely obscured by the large line of people waiting to get through. If this is common and the Virgin America staff don’t go out of their way to remind customers of the location of the line, I can see many of VX’s first class passengers standing in line for 30-40 minutes waiting to get through.
SEAT & IFE
Virgin America has no lounge facilities at ORD, so I planned my arrival fairly close to boarding time. After grabbing a red velvet latte at the Argo Tea near the L gates (which is where Virgin operates in Terminal 3) I mosied up to my gate to hear them call First class for boarding. Ticket in hand, I walked up to the gate agent and proceeded down the jet bridge.
I was greeted at the door by one of the youngest flight attendants I’d seen on a US-based carrier in quite awhile. She as all smiles and sunshine, welcoming me aboard and directly me to my seat for this flight – 1F. The mood lighting was on overdrive within the cabin, though that wasn’t neccesarily a bad thing. The cabin was bathed in red lighting while the economy cabin was awash in a rather patriotic blue. The overall effect was modern and “hip”, though it really made it difficult to take pictures for this report.
There was a tinted plastic partition separating the first class cabin from the economy seating and the first cabin from the front galley, which in my very humble opinion looked a bit tacky. I’m sure it looked good on paper during the planning phase, but there was something rather sloppy about the way the partition sat between the two rows of seats.
The first thing I noticed about the Virgin America first class seat was that it was u[holstered in white leather. This immediately caused me some concern as thoughts of spilt drinks or dropped food leaving permanent stains on the seat started racing through my head.
The seat itself was quite comfortable. The amount of recline was more than adequate for the mid-continental flight I was about to take. It even had a foot rest that you could deploy and adjust to various lengths and levels of support. It really reminded me of a regional business class product on an Asian carrier vs. what we typically see in the US.
The controls for the seat were pretty basic, though you really don’t need anything too complicated for a domestic first class seat. As far as I can tell most mid-con flights operated by US carriers only offer a single lever with which you recline you seat, so the fact that the seat had multiple controls and a massage function is already a step up in my book.
I found the seat comfortable for eating when the meal was served, and the recline was more than sufficient for the lounging time I had after the meal where I watched a movie. Overall this is the best domestic first class seat I’ve flown on. I have to add the caveat that since I’m based in ORD I have yet to experience AA’s (or any other US carrier’s) transcon service where the seating options are better than your standard mid-con planes. So I’m not proclaiming this the king of the domestic F seats just yet. But it’s the by far the king of what I’ve flown domestically so far.
With regards to the in-flight entertainment (IFE) I was again impressed with what Virgin America was offering. My frequent domestic flights on AA only offer IFE on overhead TVs with tiny screens or nothing at all. There are some flights that hand out Samsung Galaxy tablets to premium cabin passengers and the daily Miami to LAX flights operated by 772s which feature seat back IFE in coach. So I was happy to see that Virgin offered individual IFE screens in both their first and coach class seats. All entertainment in the F cabin appeared to be free of charge.
The screens were tucked away in the arm rest of the seat and popped out with the push of a button. Again, this reminded me quite a bit of the regional business class products I’ve become familiar with on Asian carriers like Cathay Pacific and Malaysia Airlines.
Offerings included TV shows, movies, satellite television, and foreign films as well as a variety of music options and games. The listings were not quite as extensive as I had seen on Asian carriers but certainly was a step up from what AA offers on the limited number of flights I’ve flown with domestic IFE. It even surpassed the IFE offering on AA’s international 772 flights and held steady with the updated 773 system.
The system also included opportunities to connect with your fellow passengers by giving you access to seat-to-seat, chat room, and a few other social connection options. I’m a bit old fashioned and prefer making new friends by talking face to face, so while this was a nice concept (one that I’ve seen previously on my flight with Egyptair) it wasn’t something I used and can comment upon.
The only real issue I ran into with the IFE is that when I was making my way through the music, a few of the album offerings came back with error messages. Other than this small technical issue, I was quite impressed with the IFE offerings on Virgin America.
The flight kicked off with the traditional pre-departure beverage offered to most premium cabin passengers across the globe. Being relatively early in the morning I opted for a simple glass of water which the FA provided to me and then refilled once she noticed I had downed it quite quickly.
After take off the FA appeared in the cabin as soon as the fasten seat belt sign was turned off and began handing out menus. Again, a nice improvement over what I usually receive on mid-con flights with AA where the FAs notify you of the choices by stopping by your seat and giving a (usually) mystery selection between a chicken or non-meat dish. Being able to read a full description of the meals helped me make my selection much better than the “chicken or pasta” term typically thrown my way.
The meal seemed to be designed for all flights Virgin operates. It detailed the choices on certain flights being operated within specific bands of time (breakfast, snack, lunch, dinner). Since this was an early morning flight, I was selecting from the breakfast menu. The two offerings were poached pears and apples with a zucchini omelet or a fruit plate with granola and milk. I picked the omelet option.
The beverage menu is where Virgin America really won some points with me. While many frequent travelers look forward to the various alcoholic libations that they will be drowned in when they fly airline premium cabins, it’s a complete non-issue for me. I don’t drink alcohol and have zero interest in those offerings.
The way an airline can really impress me on the catering side is to have some unique and tasty non-alcoholic beverages that I can enjoy. Asian carriers tend to do well on this front. For example two of my favorite catering options are the Cathay Delight (kiwi juice and coconut milk) on Cathay Pacific and the Sky Time beverage (a citrus fruit called yuzu is the base flavor) on Japan Airlines. VX’s non-alcoholic beverage offerings made me quite the happy flyer.
All the usual suspects are available – coke, diet coke, various fruit juices, coffee, etc. But Virgin America offers some interesting choices for travelers such as Rockstar, EBOOST, Pomegrante juice blend, and my personal favorite – hot tea offerings beyond Lipton. I’m not a huge coffee drinker, but I am a fan of tea. I even bring my own bags on planes when I travel just in case the hotel or airline doesn’t offer something to my liking. Jasmine tea happens to be my favorite type, and sure enough Virgin had it on the menu. While it wasn’t the best jasmine tea I’ve had in the air, it beat the pants off AA’s Lipton baggie.
With my hot tea in hand and a smile on my face the FA dropped off my omelet.
The entire meal was served on a single tray. I have to give points to Virgin Ameica for the presentation of the meal. The dishes were nice and the food didn’t look like it had been brought to the plane on a horse-drawn carriage over a cobblestone road. The omelet came with some sausage links, a slice of sweet fruit bread, and a bowl of mushrooms.
Despite the nice presentation, the flavor of the food was just like anything else I’d ever had on my domestic first class flights with other carriers. The omelet was a bit spongy and the sausage links were oily. The fruit bread was a bit stale. The only thing I really enjoyed eating was the bowl of mushrooms. The poached fruit on top of the omelet seemed a bit out of place and didn’t mesh well with the cheese filling.
Toward the end of my meal I did notice that Virgin has quite possibly the cutest salt and pepper shaker I’ve seen in the air to date:
Half the plane’s body is salt and the other half is pepper. You can turn the propeller to unscrew the shaker. Needless to say, this found its way into my carry on bag as it was just too avgeeky to throw away.
This is where I was most interested to see the differences between what I normally experience on AA and what VX had to offer. When it comes to the seat and catering, I knew going in that Virgin America was likely to be better than AA. They’re a newer airline with new planes and had set out from the get-go to offer a nicer product than many were seeing. Service can be hit or miss depending on what type of FAs end up working on your flight though.
AA’s FAs are often slammed for being too old and too grumpy to be front line employees any longer, and to be honest it’s a complaint about FAs across many of the major US-based carriers. I’ve rarely agreed with that statement, as the majority of the time my service on AA and other US-based carriers has been good. Often great. Then here comes Virgin with their fresh-faced, younger crews and the travel community goes atwitter with comparisons.
So. Did VX’s FAs impress?
Yes and no.
The FA working the F cabin was quite friendly and welcoming. She made sure that my needs were taken care of, checked in on me occasionally to see if I needed anything else, and thanked me for my business when I boarded and deplaned. She smiled at all the right moments, made jokes when they were appropriate, and kept her distance when I was engrossed in my movie. Overall, she represented Virgin America admirably.
But it’s also the same level of service I typically experience on AA. If you compare the FAs physically, yes, the Virgin staff were younger and prettier. But on service comparison, they were running neck and neck. I’m not really one to enjoy an FA’s service more if they’re young and attractive, so this ended up being a wash for me.
Of course this was just a single flight, so it’s not like I have sufficient experience with both carriers to truly make a call on this issue. This is how I walked away feeling after the flight though.
In a perfect world, Virgin would be my carrier of choice for domestic travel. But the world isn’t perfect, and while Virgin America offers a great product there’s just too much holding it back. The fledgling (flailing?) carrier’s network is simply too weak for me to seriously consider permanently switching. As an ORD resident, the only options they currently offer are LAX and San Francisco. The loyalty program also doesn’t stack up well when compared to my currently AA offering. Top-tier status with Virgin America still required one to pay for first class upgrades. It likely makes sense for the carrier to do this, but with all of its major competitors giving away the product for free, why bother? Sure, the seat and IFE is better, but is it $150 extra per flight better? No. The traditional carriers’ loyalty programs also offer much more value when redeeming your miles. Virgin tries its best to offer you options, but it simply can’t compete with the massive international and domestic networks and partners that UA/US/DL/AA offer.
I want to love Virgin America, but it’s just not meant to be.
Shared security with Spirit, WestJet, and Alaska leads to overcrowding that obscures signage and can be confusing to passengers.
Despite impressive plating, quality of catering appeared to be the same as any other airline.
Small route network and weak loyalty program make the carrier overall less attractive despite a fantastic hard product.
First class seat is the best I’ve flown domestically.
IFE selection is impressive and offers more than enough to keep you entertained.
Beverage selection was extensive for a mid-continental flight.
Service was on attentive and friendly.