It has been a while since I’ve flown on Virgin America, and to be honest I’ve sort of missed it. The purplely-pink mood lighting, good food, and that awesome entertainment system; it was a light cutting through the otherwise dark and dank scene of American domestic economy flying.
Thus I was rather looking forward to getting back in the air with Virgin, spurred on by its new codeshare partnership with China Airlines (which I recently sampled and detailed here). Arriving at SeaTac on November 30th, the Sunday after Thanksgiving, I expected mayhem but was instead met with relative calm.
Virgin provided me a ticket in its Main Cabin Express (MCE) block of seats. The benefits are slight, basically amounting to early boarding after first class, seating in the first few rows of economy as well as guaranteed overhead bin access. The service and product are otherwise identical to the rest of the economy cabin.
Boarding was a bit chaotic, mostly thanks to the gate agent never actually announcing that it was time for MCE to board. Suspecting that I’d missed something, I joined the boarding line which now included main cabin passengers, and was ushered on the plane and into seat 5A.
The familiar sights and sounds of Virgin America quickly washed over me, in a good way. The purple mood lighting and hip music set a comfortable, chill vibe. Red was already going and had the Patriots game on TV. Good food options, though for the short two-hour flight fairly limited, and I bought a bag of specialty mixed nuts for a few dollars. They were alright…too many cashews but otherwise fine. Drinks were likewise excellent, and not wanting to watch the game in silence I eventually caved and bought their passable headsets for $3.
The flight was otherwise uneventful, but largely lived up to the expectations that come with flying the carrier: dependable, consistent economy service with a product that still excels.
Several years after it made its introduction (and since I’ve flown them), Virgin still has much of the same spark that has set it apart: good service, good product, good vibe. They’re still, at least to me, the undisputed king of the hill when it comes to domestic service – at least when they fly where you need to go.
But the gap between the rest of the pack continues to close, most notably more recently as carriers such as American, Delta, and JetBlue expand their in-flight service options. All three recently added fresh new premium cabins on routes from New York to LA and San Francisco, markets that Virgin has invested heavily in.
Delta, however, is arguably becoming Virgin’s most formidable competitor. The Atlanta-based carrier recently beefed up its premium economy option, now dubbed Delta Comfort, and added Delta Studio, a new audio/video on-demand entertainment suite.
Indeed, the airline appears to have taken aim directly at Virgin’s Main Cabin Select premium economy option. Passengers flying Delta Comfort on the New York-California trunk routes will now receive a free sandwich wrap and frozen yogurt, along with additional recline – both elements that had previously set Virgin apart. Though in fairness, Virgin doesn’t just offer a sandwich; it offers unlimited food and drink until it runs out.
Delta Studio, unveiled more recently and available on an increasing number of mainline aircraft across all classes of service, offers a competitive package against Virgin’s Red. Red still comes out on top, thanks to a design that is fully integrated into the ethos of the airline’s service philosophy, but there’s a new kid in town with some skills.
In summation, Virgin still maintains a clear edge. Red remains the most integrated and expansive entertainment system out there, its product is competitive, and the vibe hasn’t been replicated elsewhere (nor will it likely be). But its edge is little more rough than it used to be.
This story was written in cooperation with NYCAviation. Virgin America covered the author’s flight, but his opinions are his own.