Editor’s Note: This flight review will eventually be part of a larger trip report series about our trip to California in May. I am accelerating this post to provide more detail with the flight fresh in my mind.
My wife’s brother was getting married in L.A. in May. We originally thought about road tripping it, since we also planned to head up to San Francisco to visit relatives afterwards. However, that rather quickly became unfeasible (more on that in a second). We changed plans to fly in to L.A. and back from San Francisco, and just do a one-way car rental. That allowed us to get between the two cities and spend a few days exploring the redwoods.
This trip also necessitated flying First Class both ways. Why? I might as well let the cat out of the bag – we are expecting our first child, a boy, in mid-August. Therefore, I wanted to ensure my wife would be as comfortable as possible for the flight. That’s also why we nixed the road trip. First Class fares between Dallas and California are quite competitive, generally available for around $700 roundtrip. Even better, such a fare was available on Virgin America. I’ve long wanted to try Virgin’s First Class product. Given that they provide by far the most room in the pointy end, it became a no-brainer.
Virgin America (VX) Flight 885
- May 19, 2016
- Depart: Dallas Love Field (DAL) Gate 11, 18:37, 12m late
- Arrive: Los Angeles International (LAX) Terminal 3, Gate 35, 19:44, 1m early
- Duration: 3 hours 7 minutes
- Seats: 2D, 2F
- Equipment: Airbus A319
We flew fresh on the heels of the horror stories in the news about 90+ minute security waits. That made us a bit nervous. We were traveling with my mom, and while my wife and I have PreCheck, she doesn’t. So, we decided to book a shuttle to the airport extra early, arriving about 4:30. Turns out the extra caution was unnecessary. The PreCheck line took only about 5 minutes, and my mom turned up at the gate about 10 minutes later. The crummy thing about Love Field is that there are no lounges at all. Thus, if you show up too early, your options are limited to sitting at the gate and trying to surf the internet on the free but dead slow WiFi.
Anyway, a late incoming flight delayed boarding by about 10 minutes. Virgin America aircraft have only 8 First Class seats. While priority boarding is provided, the window tends to be exceedingly short. So it’s best to be ready to go. Sure enough, they already called Main Cabin Select/Elevate elite members by the time we gathered our things and walked up. Soon we were aboard, admiring the smart, white leather seats and mood lit cabin.
If you’re used to domestic First, the amount of personal space is incredible. That’s because compared to the usual 38-40 inches of pitch in First, Virgin provides a whopping 55 inches. For someone short like me, that’s enough to be able to completely stretch your legs without even being able to reach the seatback in front. The negative with these seats is the space underneath the seat in front is constricted. This is due to the seats riding lower than other designs. This makes it difficult to place a medium-sized backpack, or even a heavily stuffed purse, in the space.
I spent a couple of minutes checking out the various bells and whistles of the seat. The entertainment controller is in the center armrest, while the seat controls are on the outer armrest. An A/C power port and USB port are directly below the outer armrest.
The seat controls are easy enough to use, but the seat itself seems overly sensitive to obstructions. Even something like a pillow or a napkin causes the seat to stop responding to the controls. The power port is far easier to access and use than ones located underneath the seat. However, I still prefer the newer design on aircraft like American’s A321S, where the power and USB ports are integrated into the seatback in front.
The biggest drawback to these seats, though, is the TV that folds out from the armrest, instead of a screen built-in to the seatback. This makes it a little awkward to try and eat and watch TV at the same time. The space gets a little congested and you get a distinct “closed-in” feeling with everything around you. Plus, you can hear but not see the hipster safety video while the First Class FA demonstrates the main action items, which is…interesting. And of course, this means no entertainment below 10,000 feet. At least the same excellent programming available in Main Cabin and Main Cabin Select mostly for a fee is 100% free in First.
Due to the delay in boarding, we ended up pushing back about 10 minutes late as well. The FA did come and ask if we wanted a pre-departure beverage, but annoyingly, she never brought it. It was a mostly cloudy afternoon in Dallas, providing only a brief view of the city. The low cloud layer was quite photogenic in the evening light, though.
The FAs left menus on the seats prior to passengers boarding. Unlike Main Cabin and Main Cabin Select, the in-seat ordering system is disabled in First Class. I presume because there are at most 8 passengers to service. I began perusing the menu, thinking that orders would be taken in short order. Virgin attempts to differentiate itself from the competition by offering full menus in the front cabin, even for a relatively short 3-hour flight.
And then we waited…and waited…and waited some more for the FA to begin service. Even as I could hear the drink and food carts going through the Main Cabin section. I used this time to test out the recline fuction of the seat. It’s not fully lie-flat, but still much, much more relaxing and comfortable than the typical domestic First seat.
The issue I had with the seat was the lower portion. The design “digs” a little into your lower legs, and the footrest wasn’t particularly comfortable. But if you folded the legrest, it intensified the digging sensation. Ultimately it was fine for a 3-hour flight. However, I bet it’s uncomfortable on a transcon redeye where you’re trying to get some sleep.
Not so much as an offer of a drink more than an hour and 10 minutes into the flight, as we passed a rogue thunderstorm while we crossed the Rio Grande Valley of New Mexico south of Albuquerque.
I thought to myself, this is awful service for coach, let alone First Class! But it turns out the crew had a good excuse. About 20 minutes prior, the FAs made an announcement asking if anyone on board was a medical professional. You always hate to hear that announcement, since it means someone is in pretty bad shape. I didn’t put two and two together at first. Eventually, I figured out that the person in need of help was the First Class FA, which of course explained the delayed service. Thankfully, the FA was fine, and once it was clear that she’d be OK, the Main Cabin attendants picked up the slack and began the First Class meal service. The appetizer was an eggplant caponata, and I ordered the butter chicken for the main course. My wife had the risotto.
While I applaud Virgin’s attempt to be innovative with its meals, the execution fell way short. The caponata was abrasively sweet, and didn’t really mesh well with the pita bread. The butter chicken, meanwhile, was poorly done. Though the meat itself wasn’t bad, the curry was extremely watery, and lacked flavor to boot. Sadly, it reminded me of my badly failed attempt at butter chicken that I tried to make at home. Equally poor were the potatoes, which were tender but also very, very bland. My wife didn’t care for her risotto, either, which she said was undercooked.
The desert was a lemon raspberry tart.
At least this was successful. It tasted like a key lime pie, which I mean as a compliment – a pleasant mix of tart and sweet in each bite. It helped dull the sting of an otherwise disappointing meal. And I’d be remiss in failing to mention the awesome salt shaker. Isn’t this sucker cool?
Though tempted to swipe one, I thought better of it in the end…
With the late start to the meal service, we began our descent not long after the FAs cleared plates. A rather hazy approach to the San Bernardino Mountains provided a nice view of Big Bear Lake in the distance.
As we descended further, it became clear that the marine layer was quite deep, resulting in some spectacular scenery of the low clouds banked up against the San Gabriels to the north.
After landing, the overcast made it unfortunately difficult to take photos of the interesting airplane porn on display. However, I managed to get a decent shot of a Norwegian 787 departing to London Gatwick. No, our plane was not on fire; the emergency crews met our plane to check on our sick crewmember.
I was actually pretty impressed with how this flight turned out. Down one crew member because of a medical issue, the other crew members stepped up and provided excellent service with the utmost professionalism (they even reassured my mom that no, it was not her pregnant daughter-in-law up front with the problem). Quite a good start to our 10-days in Cali – which happened to fly right on by, and before we knew it, it was time to head home from San Francisco.
VX Flight 714
- May 29, 2016
- Depart: San Francisco International (SFO), Terminal 2, Gate 51A, 12:22, 8m early
- Arrive: DAL, Gate 11, 18:06, 21m late
- Duration: 3 hours 44 minutes
- Seats: 1A, 1C
- Equipment: Airbus A319
The day before Memorial Day was a quiet one at SFO, and it took only a few minutes to get through security. I really hoped to pamper my mom with a lounge visit, but unfortunately, the Priority Pass lounge at SFO is the Air France/KLM Lounge in International Terminal A. Thanks to the airport’s antiquated design where none of the terminals are connected airside, we were SOL.
I always fret about delays out of SFO, but clear skies and light winds meant no flow control. Thus, boarding began right on time. I won’t spend much time on the seat, as it was pretty much the same as on the inbound to LAX. The only difference – we sat in the bulkhead this time, though with regular pitch a cavernous 55 inches, there really isn’t much difference, even with no seat in front. If anything, the bulkhead might have very slightly less legroom.
The FA welcomed us aboard and offered a pre-departure beverage. I selected a gin & tonic to indulge in a G&T selfie.
I don’t think the flight was completely full, and so we actually pushed back several minutes early. On the way, I caught a distant glimpse of an Air India 777 getting ready to take off for Delhi, along with a cool shot of the runway as we prepared to line up for departure.
For take-off, we initially took off to the north-northeast, paralleling the San Francisco peninsula, before heading west, and finally turning around to go east. I hoped to catch a glimpse of downtown San Francisco, but we didn’t quite head far enough north. So I settled for this view looking back towards the airport as we turned west across the 101. We did, however, get a great view of Skyline Drive winding along the San Andreas Fault as we turned around to head east.
Finally, as we fully turned around to head east, we passed to the south of the airport, providing excellent views of the SFO airfield.
Soon after, the FA offered another beverage, and took our meal orders. Unfortunately, only a vegetarian lentil dish was available as a main course. After the poor experience with the butter chicken, I really didn’t want to take a chance on it. Perhaps sensing my hesitation, the FA suggested I could order anything off the Main Cabin menu. I had a decent experience with the protein plate on a previous VX flight, and frankly, wasn’t all that hungry after a large breakfast before getting to the airport, so I just went with that.
As we waited for meals, I enjoyed a generous helping of scotch. Virgin America serves Glenfiddich 12, which while far from the best single malt you can get, is perfectly decent for a short domestic flight. Meanwhile, Prita just relaxed, undoubtedly amused by my trying to make up for an entire trip’s worth of drinking on one flight.
The appetizer consisted of hummus and pita bread. The hummus was decent; a little bit on the sour side, and I didn’t really think the edamame fit in. The pita bread was pretty clearly packaged, but was soft and tasty enough.
Main courses followed a few minutes later. The FA, apparently worried that the protein plate alone might not be enough food, proactively asked if I also wanted a cheese plate to go with it. I’m not one to turn down free food, so I accepted. The combo plate was served with a multi-grain bread roll.
While underwhelming as a formal menu option, I actually preferred this makeshift combo plate to the butter chicken I had on the way over, finding it fresh and light. I’d also say it’s a very positive reflection of the buy-on-board menu in Main Cabin; it’s considerably higher quality and more appealing than the typical snack boxes available for purchase on other airlines. I wasn’t a fan of the roll, which was starting to get a little stale.
With no unexpected interruptions, service on this flight was more on par of what I was expecting from Virgin First. Our FA was attentive to the small cabin, checking up on everyone frequently, and as mentioned, taking proactive steps such as noticing that my meal selection was small and asking if I would like an add-on to go with it. Little things like that go a long way to make passengers feel valued.
You might have looked at the departure and arrival times and wondered how we could have left SFO on time, but arrived at Love Field late. The reason: weather. A rogue cluster of thunderstorms formed over South Dallas literally right as we were getting ready to land, forcing us to arc to the east, before coming back around to avoid the storm cells. The storm did look pretty vigorous, and the fringes got our airplane a little wet as we landed.
Overall Thoughts on Virgin America First Class
I have to say, this is the best domestic First Class experience by far, at least for short-to-medium haul flights. While you can occasionally find an equal or better seat, i.e. the internationally configured 767 or 777 on American between Dallas and Los Angeles on a few selected flights, Virgin’s passenger experience makes it a superior option (I give them a pass for the delayed service on the first segment, given the circumstances). Catering was a miss on these flights, though.
Also, while I’ve never flown any of the Big Three’s transcontinental products, such as American’s A321T, I don’t think the seat, not to mention the very limited number available, could compete on a long-haul route. The seat features some shortcomings that would probably prove to uncomfortable after 5 hours. From Dallas, though, it’s no contest if I can get Virgin First for the same price as the big boys.