Over the past several months, I reviewed and evaluated the value propositions of the domestic extra legroom products of both American (Main Cabin Extra) and Delta (Economy Comfort). On a recent trip to California, I decided it was time to try out the Virgin America experience. My wife and I flew to Cali via Southwest, primarily because our friend lived in the Central Valley. It was a lot more convenient to fly to Sacramento and then LA, instead of trying to go via San Francisco. On the way home, though, with just a straight shot from LA to home, this provided the perfect opportunity to finally give Virgin America Main Cabin Select a try.
As mentioned above, Virgin America’s economy class product generates a lot of hype. As you would expect from a Richard Branson enterprise, Virgin America, much like its sister operations Virgin Atlantic and Virgin Australia, bills itself as the hip, cool alternative to other airlines, right down to the funky avatars used to represent occupied seats on the airline’s seat maps. And, thanks to the October launch of unrestricted service from Dallas Love Field, VX has been offering some incredible deals on flights from Dallas to its new destinations, including LAX. With Main Cabin Select offered on sale at just a $50 premium to regular Main Cabin, I decided to upgrade and give the fancy pants Economy product a try.
Virgin America (VX) Flight 882
- December 8, 2014
- Depart: Los Angeles International (LAX) Gate 36, 16:57, 3m early
- Arrive: Dallas Love Field (DAL) Gate 13, 21:47, 13m early
- Main Cabin Select, Seats 3E, 3F
- Equipment: Airbus A320
Whenever I visit my in-laws, I greatly prefer to fly in and out of Ontario, rather than LAX. They live on the east side of the Inland Empire, a little south of San Bernardino. While it’s a short, 20-30 minute drive to ONT, it is a 77-mile slog all the way to LAX. That’s an hour and 15 minutes with no traffic, but time it wrong, and it can take up to 2 1/2 hours. With the crazy fare sales going on the last several months, and since I’m notoriously cheap, I reluctantly put up with the inconvenience. Since I was flying back on a weekday, I wanted to allow plenty of time in case of problems. Luckily there were none. So we dropped off the car by 3:15, then hopped on the shuttle and made it to LAX Terminal 3 by 3:30.
I checked in the night before and indicated that I would be checking a bag (I was carrying several bottles of wine, thus requiring a checked bag). Therefore, we used the fast bag drop instead of the self check-in kiosks. It only took a couple of minutes, though even the kiosks had little traffic at 3:30 on a Monday. Notice that the “hip” vibe carries through even to the check-in area, with the modern design and flat-screen panels.
Main Cabin Select includes priority security. I couldn’t find a separate “priority” lane, though the TSA sent us to the Pre-Check lane. I don’t know whether that’s what makes up the “priority”, or if we just got lucky. Anyway, we sailed through in less than 5 minutes, which meant a bit of a wait before boarding. Terminal 3 is nothing particularly exciting, but VX does provide a handful of power outlets. There is also a decent looking seafood place (Gladstone’s) we might try the next time we’re here. If anyone’s been, your reviews are welcome in the comments. Frankly, it’s still better than Southwest’s Terminal 1.
The gate agent provided 10 minute and 5 minute warnings before boarding began. The friendly agent started boarding on time, and we quickly made our way to our seats in Row 3. The cabin was awash in the purple mood lighting we’ve all heard so much about.
A few words about the Main Cabin Select product to start off. It’s a more complete “premium economy” product than AA’s MCE, DL’s Economy Comfort, or UA’s Economy Plus. That’s because purchasing a Main Cabin Select fare includes one checked bag and mostly unlimited food and alcoholic drinks at no extra charge, in addition to the extra legroom. The concept is good, though the execution is somewhat lame. What I mean by that is, while 12 MCS seats are available on every flight, it consists of only two rows – the bulkhead in Row 3, and the exit row in Row 10.
Problem is, if you don’t like the bulkhead or the exit row, you’re out of luck. And I really don’t like either, because I don’t like the lack of underseat storage in the bulkhead, and the misshapen armrests and the tendency for it to get cold in the exit rows. Perhaps they should do like AA or DL. Just make the first 3-4 rows of economy Main Cabin Select, thereby providing more options. In any event, this was an exceptionally roomy seat, advertised at 38 inches of pitch. That’s almost as much as a typical domestic first class seat. I also found it quite comfortable; not hard like the typical Slimline seats you see more and more often today, and with no sign of saddle sore or sore thighs after our 3-hour flight.
As we settled in, the safety video began playing on the in-seat monitor. As you would expect from Virgin, they even tried to do this hipster style, making a rap and dance out of it. I found the video annoying more than anything else. It doesn’t help that I don’t like rap, but the dance also had a cheesy Bollywood vibe to it. And it went on way too long (come to think of it, just like a Bollywood movie).
Bollywood-style safety video (pardon the poor photo quality)
This would be a night flight, and thus there wouldn’t be much of an opportunity for picture taking. For all you avgeeks that crave airplane porn, I did manage to get this special treat as we taxiied. A rare Sun Country 737 taxiing towards its gate.
Anyway, with no real reason to look out the window, it was time to enjoy the in-flight service. All VX passengers, regardless of class of service, receive free Dish Network TV (bring your own headphones or buy one for $3), a moving map feature, and in-seat AC power. MCS and First Class customers also receive free headphones, premium TV options, and on-demand movies. Since it was Monday, I went with the Packers-Falcons game on Monday Night Football, occasionally switching to the map. I liked this particular moving map. It was a Google Maps setup that could be zoomed in to pinpoint a pretty exact location. Very nice for travel geeks.
Moving map while flying east of Palm Springs
Monday Night Football on ESPN, part of the free Dish TV available to all
As mentioned, MCS customers received most food and alcoholic drinks at no additional charge. Main Cabin customers can also order them for an additional $3-9 each. I ordered the “Protein Plate”, a box of chocolate chip cookies, a Glenfidditch scotch and soda, and later a ginger ale. My wife ordered a turkey and pesto sandwich and a bag of macaroons.
The “Protein Plate” – hummus, boiled egg, pita bread, cheese, grilled chicken, and fresh fruits and vegetables
Turkey and pesto sandwich and macaroons for the missus
Scotch and soda
Box of cookies and a ginger ale
This is perhaps the most innovative part of the VX experience. You don’t have to wait for an FA to come take your order. You can place your order on demand and pay on the TV screen, and then an FA brings it to you within a couple of minutes. The system is activated shortly after reaching 10,000 feet. The FAs do come by and take orders a few minutes later if you forget to place an order or just don’t want to use the screen. If you want seconds or a refill, just rinse and repeat. No need to wait and hope that your FAs are in a good mood and will do a second service.
Personally, I think all airlines should move to this system. It seemed to make the entire process more efficient, since the FAs only have to spend time providing items to those who want them.
I also found the meals and snacks to be of good quality. All of the items on my plate were fresh and tasty, appeared to be locally sourced, and were right-sized portions that didn’t make you feel bloated. I didn’t try any of my wife’s sandwich, but it looked fresh, and my wife took the leftovers home. And the cookies were crispy and delicious.
Service by the FAs during the flight was good, if not outstanding. They were friendly enough, and when I ordered my dessert and ginger ale after finishing my meal, it was brought to my seat in less than 2 minutes. But I wouldn’t say the service particularly stood out, either. Call it perfectly reasonable for coach class.
Since I had my eyes glued to MNF, the flight went by quickly. Before I knew it, we began our descent into Dallas. It was a clear night, allowing for expansive views of the Metroplex all lit up for the night. Soon, we passed near intersection of the Bush Turnpike and Dallas North Tollway in Plano.
We made an uneventful landing at DAL from the south, arriving at the gate nearly 15 minutes early. One good thing about a small airport like Love Field is that there’s only one baggage claim area. Therefore, bags usually come out pretty quickly (<15 minutes generally). The one issue – the sign boards are awful about telling you which belt your bags will be arriving on. Half the time, your flight number doesn’t show up on any of the boards until the bags start coming out. Or the flight number is shown on one belt, but then the bags come out on another. This leads to a rather crowded, disorganized scene in the baggage claim area. Not VX’s fault, but something DAL needs to work on, especially now that more passengers will be coming through.
Virgin America Main Cabin Select – Overall Impressions
We booked our flight during one of VX’s seemingly constant fare sales. Therefore, we paid just $50 more than regular Main Cabin for our Main Cabin Select seats. For what you get – a true premium economy experience featuring priority services, free food, drinks, and entertainment, and a checked bag – that’s a really good price, and this was an excellent overall experience. If you need to check a bag for whatever reason, that’s half of the fee right there.
Doing a random check of dates between now and July, it looks like the extra fee for MCS ranges from $32-130 each way, with the median being somewhere in the $50-70 range. This compares to $40-50 each way for the legacy carriers’ extra legroom products, though I’m curious to see how Delta’s pricing changes now that alcohol will soon be free in Economy Comfort. Given that MCS is a real premium economy product, I’d say anything up to $80-100 would constitute a good value. Given that VX seems to be regularly offering seats for much less than this, it sure seems like they’re leaving money on the table.
Which brings me to the real problem I see here. Despite being extremely aggressive with their pricing in the Dallas market, the plane was maybe half full on this flight.
I haven’t looked at numbers, but some of the scuttlebutt I’m hearing suggests that half-empty planes have been an ongoing problem with flights out of DAL. In that sense, VX reminds me a little too much of India’s now-defunct Kingfisher Airlines, another outfit run by a hipster billionaire that offered a cool, hip, premium product, but was unable to get Indian consumers to pay more for the privilege. VX seems to have succeeded in creating that same upscale, premium feel with both the hard and soft products. But just like Kingfisher, doesn’t seem able or willing to charge more for it.
A round-trip from DAL to LAX, departing January 24th and returning January 25th, is $268.20 on VX for regular Main Cabin. That’s only $8 more than Southwest and AA. My wife and I really enjoyed our flight, and have already booked another flight to LA in February to try out their regular Main Cabin service. I just have to wonder how long they’ll be plying the skies by giving away their product and still not putting butts in seats. Hopefully this flight was just an anomaly in that regard.