Aviation News

March 14, 2012

Virgin America Main Cabin Select Reviewed: The Premium Economy Challenge, Round 1

Virgin America aircraft.
A Virgin America Airbus jet. (Photo by Jeremy Dwyer-Lindgren)

We took a look at Virgin’s Main Cabin and Main Cabin Select cabin products in the above reviews over the course of four flights. There is no question that the Virgin America experience was a very positive one overall. While both Main Cabin and Main Cabin Select (MCS) incorporate many of the same features, they end up having surprisingly different experiences. You might wonder how that can be, so wanted to break it down in terms of ‘defining elements’ and value.

We’ll discuss the most important defining elements of the main cabin first:

Product. The cabin aesthetics & atmosphere from the mood lighting to the music is a welcome addition and sets the mood for the flight. The seats—all leather—are quite nice with a modest seat pitch of 32” and recline of 3-5”. The power outlets are a huge plus; especially if you have electronics that are not kind to batteries (one has to really wonder why competitors have not universally followed suit on this). But best of all is the immensely powerful audio/visual-on-demand (AVOD) system, Red, that we cannot say enough about: Red is flat out awesome; end of story. Collectively all of these features combine to make a formidable product, especially when compared against other airlines in the US domestic market.

Virgin America cabin.

Virgin America Airbus A320 cabin. (Photo by Jeremy Dwyer-Lindgren)

Choice/convenience. This ties very heavily into Red and emphasizes how the system is built not just to entertain you but to manage and direct your inflight experience. Everything you can watch, listen to, or purchase is at your fingertips virtually anytime you want it; and there is a ton to choose from. The only restrictions on eats are prior to the first and only beverage service and post final descent. Entertainment can be accessed anytime, gate to gate. On the pay features, Virgin leaves it up to the passenger what, if anything, need be purchased.

Our only suggestion is to consider making a small handful of eats options available at no cost on long-haul flights. Doing so would set them even further apart from the already lagging competition. That suggestion aside, we do not have anything negative to say about the Main Cabin experience.

Main Cabin Select (MCS) is essentially the Main Cabin, but without restrictions. The experience likewise revolves around product and choice, but with two added and more critical elements: speed and perks.

Speed: Check-in for MCS is shared with the first class cabin, in most cases providing a staff to passenger ratio of 1:10, assuming that the dedicated counter is manned by two service agents. You also have the luxury of passing through the ever-popular TSA lines a little faster than everyone else with priority screening. And, finally, you get to board the airplane faster than most everyone else too with priority boarding with first class. If you’ve read the reviews you’ve seen how this can make a noticeable difference.

Perks: While the main cabin has a very solid product, not all of it is free, as we saw. MCS almost completely erases the dollar sign from Red (or at least places a zero after it) by offering unlimited snacks, drinks (including alcoholic), and food for as long as supplies last in addition to unlimited entertainment with a headset to boot (WiFi is not free in MCS). On top of free stuff via Red, the seat pitch stretches from 32” in Main Cabin to 38” in MCS. And you get dedicated overhead bin space, a hot commodity on any full flight.

Virgin Main Cabin Economy versus Main Cabin Select

Main Cabin Select is incorporated into the economy cabin via the reclining exit row and the forward bulkhead row. Consequently, MCS folks share the same flight attendants with the Main Cabin, resulting in an average crew member to passenger ratio of 1:63. Based on the speed and quality of service, you would not have known that the ratio was so high on the flights we took.

Regarding location, while the exit row does feel like a different class of service, the location of the forward bulkhead row in the front of the aircraft right behind first class emphasizes the priority status and helps isolate the occupants from the rest of the aircraft, underscoring the different cabin feel. An additional plus; tray tables are located in the divider, not the armrest. As a result the armrests actually work; as opposed to other carriers whose armrests are fixed in bulkhead rows.

Like the main cabin, we do not have anything bad to say about main cabin select: any hiccups were minor nuisances at worst and did not take away from the experience on an elemental level. With the combination of perks and product, MCS tried hard to feel like a different class of service, and it works. We think of MCS as less a premium economy and more as a business class lite.

With the overall awesomeness of both options well established, the choice between the two comes out to cost vs. value. To help frame up the question we spent an evening running an unscientific survey on eight-four one-way fare prices for travel on March 5th and May 7th at randomized times. While important to note that this survey was a very small snapshot in time at Virgin’s fares, it can be helpful in providing a loose cost comparison between the two options.

On average, the non refundable version of MCS—known as instant upgrade main cabin select—ended up being 116% ($215) higher than the non-refundable main cabin fare.

To flesh it out further, let’s say we had one meal ($8), one snack ($4), one cocktail ($7), and one movie plus headset on a flight ($8/$2). Our total flight cost on an average non refundable main cabin fare in our survey would total $223.62. Compare against the average non refundable MCS fare ($409.70) and subtract the difference. Having factored in the ‘savings’ from on-board purchases, you would end up paying $186.08 for speed and the perks of legroom and dedicated overhead bin space. That is not an insignificant amount of money.

Again, we want to stress that the survey is a snapshot, and if you were to repeat it you would likely end up with different numbers. We imagine that they would still be in the same ballpark, though.

Of course, it is up to you the consumer to determine whether or not the extra money is worth the extra cost to upgrade: value is defined by the consumer, and what one consumer may value another may not. Some folks are willing to pay for more legroom; others would rather pack their own meal to save a dime.

Either way, both Main Cabin and Main Cabin Select are solid options that set a high bar for the US domestic airlines to aspire toward. They both come highly recommended by NYCAviation.

Surfing NYCAviation from 40,000 feet with Virgin America's wifi

Surfing NYCAviation from 40,000 feet through Virgin America's wifi. (Photo by Jeremy Dwyer-Lindgren)

The Bottom Line

You cannot go wrong with either choice, really, you can’t. Main Cabin offers a very solid inflight experience that may make you wonder how you flew economy on anyone else. Main Cabin Select offers a completely unencumbered main cabin experience in greater comfort and with priority status, though often at a premium price.

In the opening we wondered aloud whether Virgin America is all show with little to back up some pretty lights. We are pleased to say Virgin America met and/or exceeded expectations and, when taken in the context of US domestic carriers, truly does provide a breath of fresh airline.