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)
Easily recognizable with the iconic Virgin label emblazoned on each aircraft, the relatively new airline based out of San Francisco has a reputation for restoring dignity and class to US domestic flying. Cabins bathed in purples and pinks instead of flood-light-white and decked-out with leather-clad seats in every row rather than cloth certainly give us the impression of something good going down onboard. But does the experience stop at the show, or will Virgin America live up to their own mantra; a breath of fresh airline?

NYCAviation recently had the opportunity to find out for ourselves while flying a roundtrip, provided by Virgin America, from Seattle to New York-JFK via Los Angeles-LAX. While this will be our first review of the airline, it also launches a new series dedicated to evaluating and comparing premium economy products on the US domestic airlines. We got a good taste for the Virgin experience having flown the two outbound legs in Main Cabin Economy, and the return in their much-vaunted premium economy option known as Main Cabin Select. Per usual, NYCAviation will give it to you straight via the trip reports and then break it down by pitting both cabin options against the other, and wrap it up nice and sweet in The Bottom Line. Let’s go flying!

The Main Cabin Economy Flights

Virgin America Flight 496
Route: Seattle–Tacoma International Airport (SEA)-Los Angeles International Airport (LAX)
Aircraft: Airbus A320
Departure: 5:55 pm | Arrival: 7:56 pm
Seat: 22F | Main Cabin Economy

Until this flight, we thought we had SeaTac down to a science: arrive about an hour early, look for the shortest TSA line—one is always empty—and be airside within five minutes. Not today. Already running behind for the day we pulled up to the drop off area on a crunch for time, and hurriedly printed the boarding passes while only barely taking note of the hip check-in desk with music and mood lighting akin to a club. The first security line we pass is a beast; quickly it becomes obvious that the other three are too. We settle on one, moseying our way through the twenty-five minute long line. Time is now short and a mad dash to gate A6 ensues, where the plane is nearly boarding.

Virgin America Main Cabin Economy seating.

Virgin America Main Cabin Economy seating. (Photo by Jeremy Dwyer-Lindgren)

Boarding began on time and while competitors holding Group B status have usually left us waiting on the jetbridge, it wasn’t that way tonight: we walked onto the plane, easily found space for a carry-on, and took a seat in 22F in less than three minutes. Settling in under the purple and blue hues of the relaxing mood lighting, we cued up some free tunes on Red—Virgin America’s potent audio/video on demand (AVOD) seatback entertainment system—while climbing up to 10,000 feet. Virgin offers their own headphones to Main Cabin for $2 per pair, plus they can go home with you.

Once passing the magical 10k marker, the soft whir of electronics began to fill the cabin. Our own laptop seems to suck more power out of the battery than space manages to suck out of the sun per minute, and consequently we were extremely pleased to find a power outlet under the seat. There are only two outlets per row (also including USB ports), so if everyone needs the juice sharing is required. But for folks who needed to get work done—especially those that have enormous power-sucking laptops like us—the power outlets enabled the ability to work, or watch, or play on your personal device all flight long.

The industry standard 32 in seat pitch becomes a bit problematic when trying to utilize any full-size laptop. When our fellow passenger in the row ahead of us reclined, space became quite tight quite fast leaving a certain set of shoulders feeling as though they had vaulted into the overhead bins.

A standard drink service was provided shortly thereafter, offering a selection of soft-drinks, juices and H2O for free along with quality adult beverages and specialty drinks (like green tea) for a fee, plus some food options also for purchase. We took an exciting OJ (no ice) and skipped on purchasing anything for this flight.

Having finished up some work we took advantage of the free satellite TV and a few March Madness recaps on ESPN.

The flight landed a negligible ten minutes late, pulling up to the gate quickly in LAX’s Terminal three. Within fifteen minutes we were at the curb in a slightly chilly Los Angeles.

Virgin America Flight 406
Route: Los Angeles International Airport (LAX)-New York John F. Kennedy International Airport (JFK)
Aircraft: Airbus A320
Departure: 10:50 am | Arrival: 6:32 pm
Seat:Seat 20A | Main Cabin Economy

Already having our ticket printed up from check-in the night before, we skipped directly to the Terminal 3 security checkpoint. Thankfully the line was short at nine-thirty in the morning, and 10 minutes later we were airside. Much like the prior flight to LA, boarding was very quick in group B. The flight buttoned up and left the City of Angels for the Big Apple about ten minutes behind schedule. LAX being the aviation Mecca that it is, most of the departure and climb-out was spent with eyes glued out the window identifying various landmarks in the LA Basin while passively listening to CBS News on Red.

Virgin America's Red entertainment system

Virgin America's Red entertainment system. (Photo by Jeremy Dwyer-Lindgren)

The four hour and 42 minute flight presented a great opportunity to get to know Red better. For those who don’t know Red is Virgin America’s AVOD system, located conveniently in the seatback in front of you. It can be operated via touch screen and/or a tethered remote tucked into your armrest. The Linux-based touch screen console is pretty intuitive, laying out broad categories of high-level easy to understand choices such as Watch, Listen, Eat, Play, and Games. You can then drill down into either more specific categories or individual choices, depending on your selection. The tethered remote basically consists of what amounts to a TV remote on one side, and a QWERTY keyboard on the other. The entirety of Red can be navigated via the remote, thereby reducing the need to push on your fellow passenger’s seatback.

Red features quite a number of spiffy features and great content to keep you occupied while ultimately managing your in-flight experience:

Want to listen to a string of tunes without having to find a new one every three minutes?…customize your own playlist under Listen. Content under the Listen tab is enormous in scope. As a result searchability can be a bit of challenge. Once you’ve finished the upfront investment of finding what you like it is super easy to add the album or individual track to the list. Then just set and forget…we created a list of some of our favorite tunes and filed it away for later in the flight.

Some of the other features on Red include the ability to converse between passengers via an instant message system and a host of reasonably made games filed under Play. We heard that they had Doom on board, which had us very excited, but was slightly disappointed to not find it under the selections (maybe we didn’t look hard enough).

While everything is available to you in the Main Cabin, not everything is available for free. For example, most of the Listen content—which consists of thousands of tunes and 24 channels of satellite TV are free, while on-demand recent-release flicks and on-demand TV content run between $3 and $8. We did not end up purchasing anything from the Red entertainment selections while on this flight because there was enough to watch and listen to without having to pay for additional content.

Ordering dinner on Virgin America

Ordering dinner on Virgin America. (Photo by Jeremy Dwyer-Lindgren)

Particularly interesting was the innovative eats ordering system. The very intuitive system allows for high level categorical choices followed by drill-down to individual products. Since much of the choices are pay per eat, you can swipe your credit card and can pay per purchase or open up a tab (genius, but dangerous). Prices vary from $3 to $10 depending on your order. Shortly afterward, a crew member delivers your order to your seat.

Our Red system froze while playing one of the games three hours into the flight, but no worries: while on a trip to the restroom we asked a crew member if she could fix it. She quickly accessed a panel in the rear galley, pulled up my seat on a touch screen and restarted the system. By the time we finished up our business, Red was back in business at our seat: most excellent.

Moving on from our Red tangent, we did end up ordering some food about two thirds of the way through the flight. We ordered a Blue Moon beer ($7 – and it was cold on arrival) and a “hearty” meal consisting of pretzels, salami, crackers, cheddar cheese spread, fruit snacks, and a delicious cookie-like thing we can’t recall the name of ($7). It was ordered at 2:05 and delivered at 2:06. The beer was great but felt overpriced considering the 12oz can size, whereas the meal felt more appropriately priced (and hit the spot).

Like last time, the power outlet was immensely appreciated once the electronics came out. And again, like last time, the space began to become pretty cramped pretty quick. Unlike last time however we sprung for the WiFi, provided by GoGo ($14.95). It operated without incident almost the entire flight. The only complaints would be the inability to utilize the same wireless purchase on more than one device, and that GoGo restricts bandwidth heavily thereby reducing the quality of graphics.

Deciding it was time to simply enjoy the flying with about an hour to go, we cued up that playlist from earlier, which played all the way to the gate following an early landing into JFK.

Continued: Main Cabin Select Flights and the Bottom Line >>