December 11, 2014

Virgin America: Still the Best In Class?

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Written by: Jeremy Dwyer-Lindgren
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(Editors Note: This story was written in cooperation with our friends at

It has been awhile since I’ve flown on Virgin America, and to be honest, I’ve sort of missed it. The purplely-pink mood lighting, good food and that awesome entertainment system; it was a light cutting through the otherwise dark and dank scene of American domestic economy flying.

Thus, I was rather looking forward to getting back in the air with Virgin again, spurred on by its new codeshare partnership with China Airlines (which I recently sampled and detailed). Arriving at SeaTac on November 30, the Sunday after Thanksgiving, I expected mayhem but was instead met with relative calm.

Virgin provided me a ticket in its Main Cabin Express (MCE) block of seats. The benefits are slight, basically amounting to early boarding after first class, seating in the first few rows of economy as well as guaranteed overhead bin access. The service and product are otherwise identical to the rest of the economy cabin.

Boarding was a bit chaotic, mostly thanks to the gate agent never actually announcing that it was time for MCE to board. Suspecting that I’d missed something, I joined the boarding line which now included main cabin passengers, and was ushered onboard and into seat 5A.

VX796-3The familiar sights and sounds of Virgin quickly washed over me in a good way. The purple mood lighting and hip music set a comfortable, chill vibe. Red was already going and had the Patriots game on TV. Good food options (though fairly limited for the short two-hour flight), and I bought a bag of specialty mixed nuts for a few dollars. They were all right; too many cashews, but otherwise fine. Drinks were likewise excellent, and not wanting to watch the game in silence I eventually caved and bought Virgin’s passable headsets for $3.

The flight was uneventful, and largely lived up to the expectations that come with flying the carrier: dependable, consistent economy service with a product that still excels.

Several years after it made its introduction (and since I first flew them), Virgin still has much of the same spark that has set it apart: good service, good product, good vibe. They’re still (at least to me) the undisputed king of the hill when it comes to domestic service – at least when they fly where you need to go.

But the gap between itself and the rest of the pack continues to close, most notably more recently as carriers such as American, Delta, and JetBlue expand inflight service options. All three recently added fresh new premium cabins on routes from New York to LA and San Francisco, markets that Virgin has invested heavily in.

Delta, however, is arguably becoming Virgin’s most formidable competitor. The Atlanta-based carrier recently beefed up premium economy option, now dubbed Delta Comfort, and added Delta Studio, a new audio-video on demand entertainment suite.

Indeed, the airline appears to have taken aim directly at Virgin’s Main Cabin Select premium economy option. Passengers flying Delta Comfort on the New York-California trunk routes will now receive a free sandwich wrap and frozen yogurt along with additional recline, both elements that had previously set Virgin apart. Though in fairness, Virgin doesn’t just offer a sandwich, it offers unlimited food and drink until it runs out.

VX796-1Delta Studio — unveiled more recently and available on an increasing number of mainline aircraft and across all classes of service – offers a competitive package against Virgin’s Red. Red still comes out on top, thanks to its design that is fully integrated into ethos of the airline’s service philosophy, but there’s a new kid in town with some skills.

In summary, Virgin still maintains a clear edge. Red remains the most integrated and expansive entertainment system out there, its product is competitive, and the vibe hasn’t been replicated elsewhere (nor will it likely be). But its competitive edge is slipping more than it used to.

Jeremy Dwyer-Lindgren is a Seattle-based freelance photojournalist and aviation writer. He can be reached via email, or you can follow him on Twitter.

Editor’s note: Virgin America paid for a one-way ticket in Main Cabin Express from Seattle to Los Angeles. The opinions of the author are not necessarily those of NYCAviation.

About the Author

Jeremy Dwyer-Lindgren



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