I talk about airlines and airplanes a lot; it’s a part of who I am. Fairly often, my conversations about such topics end up on Virgin America. At this point, I am forced to divulge the fact that I had never been on Virgin America, a statement which is often met with a blank stare followed by the response, “really?”
Most of my domestic flights are on JetBlue and Delta, simply because of their much larger route network out of New York, where I am based. When I finally had the opportunity to give Virgin America a try, I immediately jumped at the chance. I flew from New York’s John F. Kennedy International (JFK) to San Francisco (SFO) and back in 12 hours as part of a media event, so travel was paid for by the airline (note: the airline paid for my trip, but all opinions are my own).
At JFK, Virgin America is based out of Terminal 4, which mainly houses international carriers. Virgins gates are in the A concourse, which is simply not where you want to be. With extremely limited restaurant and shopping options there, you will want to spend as little time as possible at the gate. Thankfully, Terminal 4 is undergoing a massive renovation which will remedy this issue. The terminal is in the process of unifying the two security checkpoints, and when complete, passengers will have access to a markedly wider selection of restaurants and shopping.
Virgin Americas gate at JFK T4 does not stand out in any way over any other domestic airline. There is no fancy seating, no nice lighting, and not so much as power outlet in sight. However, the instant you board the aircraft, things immediately start to change.
Most passengers will quickly notice the colorful mood lighting, which is a great upgrade from the typical dim white fluorescent tube lighting. At first it might appear the lighting is all LED, like we are seeing in new Boeing interiors, but it is actually a combination of fluorescent tubes and white LEDs with a color gel on them.
It’s warm, inviting, and just overall pleasant. Once settled, I found the seat to be quite comfy. The adjustable head rest is a great addition to the black leather seat. At 6’2’’, legroom was not an issue, as I had room to stretch, something becoming increasingly rare in economy.
Virgin America features one of the most advanced in-flight entertainment systems I have ever used, and I took this opportunity to put it to the test. The system, called RED, features movies and TV shows on demand, live satellite TV, food and drink ordering, and other information features. What I liked most about the system was how responsive it was. I never encountered any lag in the system, which makes the user experience quite enjoyable. I was thankful that the live TV was free, as I found the other selections a bit too expensive for my taste. The satellite TV selection is limited to 18 channels compared to 36 on JetBlue, and certain channels did not work, but I was always able to find something to watch.
One thing that did irk me about the entertainment system was that there seemed be a lot of features that either didn’t work, or weren’t yet available. For instance, on the main menu there is a button labeled “read,” but when clicked, a message told me that the feature is not yet available. A feature that is not yet activated should not be displayed as an option to the passenger.
I was able to follow up with Virgin American and they explained to AirlineReporter.com that they are, replacing the Read section with an Info Section, “that includes static content that will be updated every six weeks, but that relates to travel, destination and other info that is more ‘evergreen’ and that fits better with what guests want to engage with in-flight.”
Similarly, I had some issues with the program guide for the live TV. I would click on it and an error message would appear. That must have just been an isolated instance. Additionally, I would like if some on-screen reference was made to the tethered remote in the armrest. Had the passenger next to me not removed it first, I probably would never had known it could be moved.
My favorite part of the Virgin America experience was probably the in-flight ordering process. Virgin has done away with the traditional cart down the aisle system, and instead passengers order what they want through their screen and a flight attendant delivers it. I was extremely impressed at how simple the ordering process was, and how quickly items were delivered. If I could change one thing, it would be the inclusion of any free food option, even if just a small bag of chips. All food is purchase only in economy, no freebies except for drinks.
Once arriving to SFO, I made my way to my hotel and did not really check out the terminal. The following day, I made an effort to arrive at SFO early in the morning and was relieved to discover how beautiful Virgin America’s terminal was. Wide open spaces, bright, restaurant choices to satisfy even the most picky of eaters. This terminal clearly reflected Virgin’s attitude.
Unlike the terminal at JFK, SFO features lovely seating areas, classy furniture, free wifi and power outlets everywhere. These upgrades go a long way when it comes to unwinding after passing through security, and I wish any of these features were present at JFK.
Now that I have finally flown Virgin America, I can give an honest opinion of this high-tech, feature packed airline. While the airline did not disappoint, I’m not sure I would pay a premium over other airlines such as JetBlue for the privilege. The entertainment system may be more advanced and the mood lighting may create a brighter atmosphere, but overall, I felt the overall experience was different, but comparable. However, when compared to some legacy carriers that fly the route, I would absolutely consider upgrading to Virgin America.
The flight from SFO to JFK was a special media flight to fly the San Fransisco Giants World Championship Trophy to New York… stay tuned.
||This story written by… Jason Rabinowitz, Correspondent.
Jason is a New York City native who has grown up in the shadow of JFK International Airport. A true “avgeek”, he enjoys plane spotting and photography, as well taking any opportunity he can get to fly on an aircraft.
@AirlineFyer | FaceBook |
Virgin America, Breanna Jewel, sits at LAX after arriving.
VIRGIN AMERICA FIRST CLASS REVIEW BASICS:
Airline: Virgin America
Aircraft: Airbus A320 (named Breanna Jewel)
Departed: Seattle-Tacoma International Airport (SEA)
Arrived: Los Angeles International Airport (LAX)
Class: First Class
Cheers: Best domestic first class product, hands down.
Jeers: Please wash your windows.
Bottom Line: You get what you pay for and you shouldn’t feel bad paying for this.
Virgin America’s first class seats are spacious and colorful.
FULL VIRGIN AMERICA FIRST CLASS REVIEW
It has been a while since I have done a review on Virgin America and when I recently flew from SEA to LAX for #Dorkfest, I decided it was time for another review. I have flown Virgin America quite a few times, but always at the back of the (air) bus. I was hoping to review their premium product; First Class and luckily I made it work out. (Note: I paid for an economy ticket and was upgraded one-way by the airline to do the review).
Having a premium ticket gave me access to use the TSA priority line at SEA. My flight was leaving at 7:10am on a Saturday, so the priority line only saved me about a minute.
After getting through security with a first class ticket, do not expect lounge access. There is no lounge for Virgin America passengers in Seattle and lounges in New York, San Fransisco and Washington DC will cost you from $35-$75 to enter, even with a full fare first class ticket.
Have to love the Starbucks coffee sitting on the tray table in the Virgin America flight deck.
I was running a bit late and missed the first class priority boarding period. When doing a review, I prefer to board as soon as possible (or get pre-boarding access), but luckily the front cabin was still empty when I entered the A320.
It never gets old boarding a Virgin America flight. Where most other airlines welcome you with white lighting (snoozers), Virgin America gives you a pink and purple feast for the eyes.
Hunting down my seat, 1A, was not too difficult. After taking some photos and settling down I watched as the front flight attendant, Justin, was interacting with the kids boarding the plane. One was dressed as a superhero (seriously rad) and he was invited into the flight deck, but wasn’t having it (even super heroes have bad days I guess).
Every other child that boarded was given a similar invite, which most agreed. Well heck… I finally asked if adult-kids can go see the flight deck as well and I was more than welcome to do so. I have found that Virgin America is pretty welcoming to pre-taxi flight deck visits, which many other airlines are reluctant or just do not allow it.
After the kid in me got to check out the front of the plane, I was back to enjoying my pre-flight drink (coffee) and see what my seat has to offer.
If you love purple, you will love Virgin America first class. I had to take pretty photos inside the cabin, since taking photos of the outside weren’t happening.
The safety video, which features Richard Branson’s voice, has been playing for a while now, but I haven’t quite gotten sick of it yet. However, I wasn’t able to watch it on this leg of the flight. Those in first class can hear the video, but a flight attendant shows the safety features, since the TVs remain in the armrest.
My biggest problem with the entire flight were the windows being filthy. Not a huge deal for your average traveler, but one that needs (okay, maybe wants, but it feels like a need most times) to take photos out the window. The pain became much worse when our flight flew right by Mount Rainier and out of about 30 photos taken, none of them turned out remotely decent. At least there were great things to distract me inside the aircraft.
No matter what cabin you fly in, passengers get access to free satellite TV, games, ability to order food from the screen and some of the other things that make RED awesome. The bonus of being up front is all the on-demand tv and movies are included in the price of the ticket.
Probably the best banana bread I have had. How did they keep it so moist?
Talking about free; you also get free drinks and food. And we aren’t talking about a meal in a box food here, we are talking real food — the best I have had domestically.
For breakfast, I decided on the steel-cut oats (not sure what that means) and American breakfast: “Chilled steel-cuts oats tossed with oranges, apples, maple, walnuts, dried cranberries cherries, currants, and creamy yogurt, topped with multigrain granola, raspberries, and blackberries. Served along cage-free scrambled eggs finished with chives and cream cheese, accompanied by cheddar hash browns, apple and chicken sausage, roasted tomato, grilled green onion and mini French toast filled with vanilla and orange cream.” Dang, that is impressive – remember this is on a flight from Seattle to Los Angeles.
They even had Glenlivet 12 year old scotch, which is rare to even find on an international business class flight. Only if it was later in the day, I would have enjoyed it, but some OJ and coffee sufficed.
It is hard to remember this is a domestic product. Sure, the seats do not fold flat, but they get quite comfy.
If you want to guarantee a seat up in the front, make sure you purchase your first class ticket well in advance. If you are willing to take the risk, you have the ability to grab an upgrade for pretty cheap.
Elevate Gold Members are eligible to purchase First Class upgrades for themselves and a travel companion from 24 hours before departure. Elevate Silver Members are eligible to purchase First Class upgrades for themselves and a travel companion from 12 hours before departure. All other Elevate Members and other guests are able to purchase upgrades to First Class from 6 hours before departure. For a short-haul flight (like SEA-LAX) you can get a economy to first class upgrade for $79 each way. That goes up to $139 for medium haul and all the way up to $299 for long haul.
I have had no problem stating that I feel Virgin America has the best domestic economy product and I am happy to say the same about their First Class product. I am not one that has a ton of money to throw around, but I would feel okay spending the extra money for this product.
ADDITIONAL VIRGIN AMERICA FIRST CLASS PHOTOS:
Whoa, Virgin American got President Obama and Romney (impersonators) to join in on the flight. Image from Virgin America.
When most airlines start a new route, they might send out a boring press release to announce it to the world, but not Virgin America. The airline has a history of making a party out of each of their new destinations and their new route from San Fransisco (SFO) to Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport (DCA) is no different.
Sure, Virgin America has been flying into DC for a while, but only to Dulles International Airport (IAD), not DCA.
Previously, there were no direct flights from SFO to DCA via any airline, due to restrictions on destinations more than 1,250 miles away. The recent FAA Modernization and Reform Act of 2012 (click that link if you want 300 pages of amazing reading), authorized the DOT to award a limited number of new flights to domestic airports located farther away. In May, United Airlines started flying the route non-stop and now Virgin America is the only other competition.
So what gimmick was Virgin American going to have for this inaugural? They had Always Sunny in Philadelphia for their PHL flight, Rat Pack for Palm Springs, Boxing with Chicago and just plain awesome with Toronto — which is no longer an active route for the airline. This is an election year and the flight is going to DC, so why not involve politics? The airline had presidential impersonators Jim Gossett as “Mitt” and Reggie Brown as “Barack” on the flight.
Use your smart phone to scan the QR code on RED and register to vote. Image from Virgin America.
This trip was not just a party, but also an effort to get more people registered to vote. Virgin America has partnered with Rock the Vote and passengers are able to register to vote using the airline’s in-flight entertainment system and their smart phones.
“We the people get to decide who will be flying to DC next year as our representatives, but no matter who you are voting for this November, you have to be registered first,” said Heather Smith, President of Rock The Vote. “Rock the Vote is thrilled to bring voter registration to Virgin America’s guests as well as the opportunity to make a donation to support our efforts to register 1.5 million new voters and educate young Americans about participating in our democracy.”
Virgin America currently serves 18 destinations, a fleet of 52 Airbus A320-family aircraft and over 2,600 employees.
SEE MORE PHOTOS OF THE INAUGURAL FLIGHT ON VIRGIN AMERICA’S FACEBOOK
Directly from Virgin America’s Press Release:
San Francisco – June 11, 2012 – Virgin America, the award-winning U.S. airline, announces today that it is requesting U.S. Department of Transportation approval to place the Virgin Australia code on Virgin America services from Los Angeles to Boston, Chicago, Dallas, Fort Lauderdale, Philadelphia, Portland, Seattle and Washington D.C. Once approved, this will be the first-ever codeshare agreement for the California-based carrier, building on a 2009 interline agreement with Virgin Australia that paved the way for a more seamless travel experience for guests flying between Australia and the U.S. This will offer seamless booking on a single ticket for guests traveling from Australia to multiple destinations in the U.S. Virgin America’s recent move to a new reservations system allowed the carrier to initiate this first codeshare alliance as well as significantly expand its interline partnerships in recent months.
“We believe this partnership will be welcomed by travelers on both sides of the Pacific, especially our most loyal guests – those who seek out the upscale service and amenities that the Virgin branded carriers are known for around the world,” said Diana Walke, Virgin America’s Vice President of Planning and Sales. “With touch-screen entertainment, an international grade First Class, a premium Main Cabin Select product and an award-winning Main Cabin – our product offerings are uniquely matched to Virgin Australia. With this new partnership, U.S.-Australia travelers will be assured best-in-class guest service in three well-aligned classes of service – throughout their journey.”
Earlier this year, Virgin America announced an enhancement to its Elevate® frequent flyer program that allows members to earn and redeem points across the combined route network of the Virgin family of carriers. And last month, all three award-winning Virgin airlines – including Virgin Atlantic – joined forces for the first time ever to launch a joint entertainment, digital and out-of-home “Virgin Skies” advertising campaign to convey the unique Virgin in-flight experience in the Los Angeles market and mark the airlines’ global frequent flyer partnership. The centerpiece of the campaign includes the creation of an independent short film shot entirely on three commercial Virgin flights while at 35,000 feet. For more on the campaign, including behind-the-scenes footage from the filming, visit: www.flyvirgin.com/#film
“The United States is a very important market for Australia; it is the third most popular international destination for Australian visitors and our fourth biggest source of overseas visitors to Australia,” said Virgin Australia Group Executive of Alliances, Network and Yield Merren McArthur. “Today’s announcement means Virgin Australia guests can connect seamlessly to key leisure and business hubs and earn frequent flyer points and status credits in the process.”
The new codeshare agreement will not change the airlines’ existing interline agreement, through which guests already enjoy a seamless “Virgin” experience at Los Angeles International Airport (LAX). Under the codeshare, guests will check-in once and receive all their boarding passes. Domestic to international connections at LAX are within the same terminal (Terminal 3), so guests traveling from the U.S. to Australia do not have to re-clear security. Both airlines will transfer baggage between connecting flights and to guests’ final destinations – with customs clearance of guests and bags still required for travelers coming from Australia to the U.S.
Note: Press Release posts do not show up on the blog’s homepage and will not show up in syndications… you need the directly link to access.
Celebrate Good Times! Sir Richard Branson and Palm Springs Mayor Steve Pougnethelps cut the ribbon at San Fransisco on December 15th. Photo by Nick Smith / AirlineReporter.com.
On December 15th, Virgin America celebrated their inaugural service to Palm Springs International Airport (PSP). The airline is offering daily non-stop flights from San Fransisco (SFO) and seasonal flights from John F Kennedy International Airport (JKF) with just one stop (in SFO), but no plane change required.
If you know Virgin America, they can’t just start a new route without some fun — this was no exception. AirlineReporter.com Correspondent Nick Smith was able to join in on the fun, starting in SFO, then taking the inaugural flight to PSP and a bit of fun while relaxing at the Riviera Palm Springs (note that the costs for the flight from Seattle to SFO to PSP and the hotel were taken care of by the airline and hotel).
“The Virgin terminal immediately turned into a party,” Nick explains. ”Rat Pack impersonators set the tone of early fifties high class style that awaited down in Palm Springs. Crowds gravitated as Dean, Sammy and Frank occasionally broke into into a solo while holding martinis (which Virgin made available to everyone waiting to board).”
SFO’s new Terminal 2 had a party atmosphere and after a few short talks and a ceremonial ribbon cutting, it was time to board the plane; one of Virgin America’s stylish Airbus A320s (N623VA).
Sir Richard Branson walks down the aisle. Photo by Nick Smith / AirlineReporter.com.
Although the flight was short from SFO to PSP, there was still great adventure to be had. Drinks were on hand and Nick was able to hob-knob with David Cush, President and CEO of Virgin America and Sir Richard Branson.
“Sir Branson began his day in Australia but didn’t show any signs of fatigue,” Nick explained. “He made plenty of time for everyone’s questions and brought everyone’s spirit higher than the aircraft could have by itself. He clearly holds a lot of excitement for the new route and, like I, had never visited Palm Springs. ”
Special flights like these are always different. Most people are up and out of their seats and interacting with others. It is like a social shin-dig 30,000 feet up and this one was no different.
The Rat Pack on board the aircraft (at least people that look like them). Photo by Nick Smith / AirlineReporter.com.
“My favorite part of the flight was walking up and down the aisle talking to those who made this inaugural journey. Not a single passenger didn’t carry a smile and everyone had a story.”
Once the plane landed, it was welcomed by a water cannon salute and local media. There were lots of poses on the red carpet before Branson was whisked off in a helicopter (he is one busy dude) and other invited guests headed to the Riviera for some great food and drinks.
The feeling of the hotel really mirrors the energy from the surrounding area. “I asked Geoff Young, General Manager, a little about the history and style of this place, which encapsulates the spirit that made Palm Springs so popular in the heyday of early 1960′s Hollywood vacationing style,” Nick reported back. “He, as well as each member of the staff, showed absolute professionalism and commitment to service. It’s been a while since I actually felt special at a resort; this place did it.” This is about the time where I really start regretting sending Nick and wishing I was able to make the trip on my own — oh well.
What would Palm Springs be without Palm trees? Photo by Nick Smith / AirlineReporter.com.
Palm Springs is the 16th desitnation that Virgin America flies to and it most likely won’t be the last. They have over 50 planes on order and big plans to continue growing. Although they hit a snag withing having to cancel their flight to Toronto and that pesky issue with not always making profit, they are still an airline that many in the business have started to watch closely. Palm Springs seems like a good fit for the airline and the city is excited to have them.
“The Virgin brand is a perfect fit with our destination,” said Scott White, President and CEO of Palm Springs Desert Resorts CVA. “From our stylish hotels and resorts to our international festivals and 360 days of sunshine, the Virgin America guest will be able to find and experience their personal oasis! Virgin America’s new nonstop and through flights from SFO and JFK will also lower fares and improve service in our market, allowing more travelers to enjoy all that our unique region has to offer.”