Last week, I had a day of meetings in San Francisco. I'm well over the 125,000 elite qualifying miles I set out to earn this year on American Airlines, so I thought I'd try a different airline for the quick flights from LAX.
A number of my friends have been recommending Virgin America to me, so I thought I'd give it a shot.
This, then, is the recorded experiences on Virgin America of someone who flies almost exclusively on American Airlines.
Buying My Ticket
I've heard a lot of complaints (on FlyerTalk and elsewhere) about the crappiness of AA's web reservation system. I've also heard a lot of applause for Virgin America's website. So I took special care to pay attention to the booking process.
On AA, booking is only complicated because AA gives you a bunch of options. You can book by schedule or you can book by "Price and Schedule." When you pick the latter option, you start by telling AA where you want to fly and when. Then, a screen pops up that shows a chart with all the flight options on your particular date. It lets you sort by connection, by price, and by departure and arrival time. You can also decide to check out flights on nearby dates. It is, by by estimation, a pretty civilized system considering the size of AA's schedule. It also gives the buyer a fair amount of control. I like that.
Virgin America's system works almost identically. You tell them where you want to go, and then the system pulls down a chart that looks almost identical to the one on AA.com. (So at this point I'm asking myself, "Why the heck do people like the Virgin site so much more than the American site?")
The American site gives you more if you click "More Info" in any of the boxes on the chart. The box expands and tells you (a) the fare class of that particular ticket, (b) the type of plane you'll be flying on, and (c) the type of meal you can expect to be served.
Virgin doesn't offer such an option. Instead, if you mouse over the category of ticket (Main Cabin, Main Cabin Refundable, First, etc.), a pop up tells you all sorts of information, down to the color of the seat you'll be sitting in and whether or not pillows will be provided. This is probably advantageous to leisure travelers who appreciate the information.
From there on, both sites have nearly identical interfaces for picking your seats and paying for your ticket. Two places where they differ:
Virgin's seat selection tool shows you the whole airplane, which means you can change your mind and decide to get a seat in "Main Cabin Select" or first class. (If you do this, the site reminds you that your fare will go up.) I can see this being useful for someone who gets to the seat map and realizes that the only economy seats left are middle seats in the back of the plane and decides to drop a few extra bucks on an upgraded seat.
American allows you to put a reservation (with a selected seat) on hold for 24 hours. Virgin doesn't allow this, though they do allow you to cancel any paid reservation within 24 hours at no additional cost.
Day of Travel
Again, Virgin doesn't do much to differentiate itself on day of travel, with one exception.
Like all airlines, Virgin offers online check in. They charge for bags ($20 per). They have priority lines at the ticketing desk for first and "Main Cabin Select" customers. Nothing special. (They do have snazzy lighting and fancy desks, which I guess the casual traveler may see as an improvement. I see it as branding, and in this way I don't think Virgin America is different from any other airline.)
Virgin's one advantage here is that they offer day-of-travel upgrades (based on availability) when you check in online. On most carriers that offer these sort of fee-based upgrades to non-elite travelers, the upgrade option is only offered at airport check-in, and the upgrade is usually only available after all other upgrade requests (read: elite passengers) are satisfied.
On Virgin, you can simply click to change your seat to a first class seat, at which point you are asked to pay the same-day upgrade fee (in my case, $65).
Normally, I wouldn't dream of paying the fee for a 40 minute flight. But in this case, I had to check two pieces of luggage (boxes of business supplies). Virgin charges $20/bag, and my office was paying the fee. When I checked that I was checking two bags, the website explained that I might want to consider the same-day upgrade. I jumped at the chance to experience first class on a new airline for only $25.
I can't speak for Virgin America destinations other than LAX and SFO, but at those two airports, having a first class boarding pass is entirely about the experience on the plane. On legacy carriers, a first class ticket frequently allows you to use a shorter security line, sometimes includes lounge access on the day of travel, and sometimes includes priority baggage handling designed to get your bags onto the luggage carousel first. None of these perks are available on Virgin America, and the one I missed the most (in fact, the only one I really missed at all) was the priority security line.
I arrived at my gate at LAX about ten minutes before boarding was scheduled to begin. Five minutes later, a gate agent announced boarding for first class, Main Cabin Select, and families with small children.
Here's where Virgin America shines. Everything about the first class experience on the plane is exceptional. When I found my seat onboard, I was greeted by name by the flight attendant assigned to the first class cabin, who then immediately offered me a pre-departure drink. Within 60 seconds I had a Bloody Mary in my hands.
The Virgin America first class seat is awesome. It is an "international grade" seat that is miles ahead of the first class seats found on most legacy domestic planes, and even a bit better than the first class seats on three class "flagship" or "premium" transcon products between LAX/SFO and JFK. It is big and leather wth lots of room — 55" of pitch. (I couldn't help but think that a legacy first class cabin would have squeezed in an extra row where Virgin has just two.)
The seat has foot rests, power outlets, a pop-out TV screen (with on-demand video, live TV from DirecTV, some basic internet functionality, and a few movies), a generously sized tray table, a pop-out mini tray table for drinks, and a massage function.
This is probably the nicest first class seat on a two-class domestic airplane, and maybe the nicest domestic first class seat overall. (I guess you could say that American's "next generation business class" seat is nicer because it has lay-flat capacity, but it lacks in-flight entertainment, a massage function, and an AC power outlet.) My only complaint with Virgin America first class is that you have to stow bags overhead, even if you're not sitting in the bulkhead. There's just no underseat storage at all.
After takeoff, service continued to be excellent. As soon as we reached cruising altitude, a pulled out my TV screen and popped my laptop on the tray table. While getting some work done and watching the morning SportsCenter, the flight attendant kept my coffee cup full and offered me a warm mini-loaf of banana bread. The coffee was decent, the banana bread was hot enough for the butter to melt on it, and I was ridiculously pleased to have enough room for food, drink, laptop, and TV screen.
Conclusions: The Problem
The problem is simple. I would switch to Virgin America in a second (the vast majority of my travel this year was between LAX and JFK and BOS, so Virgin is a valid option for me) except for the fact that it wouldn't benefit me.
Sure, the onboard experience is head-of-the-class for a domestic airline. But the frequent flier program sucks. Basically, flying a lot on Virgin America is like flying a lot on Southwest: the airline offers you no perks for your loyalty, and instead offers you free domestic flights. Free domestic flights are basically worthless to me. My company and clients pay to send me where I need to go, and on the rare occasion that I fly domestically for leisure, I'm usually happy to pay for cheap tickets on American that offer me the opportunity to upgrade to (an admittedly less luxurious) first class.
On the other hand, Virgin is proving to the legacy carriers that domestic travel doesn't have to be so crappy. Maybe their standard of service will raise the bar elsewhere in the industry. (I'm not holding my breath, but I can hope, right?)