Today, Virgin America a normally good airline gave a disappointing performance.

Virgin America (along with JetBlue) occupy top billing for me amongst all of the US carriers. On previous flight, I have given Virgin perfect scores with no exceptions.  This most recent Virgin America flight was more frustrating!

Virgin America (VX) launched in August, 2007 from their San Francisco base (now in SFO’s magnificent Terminal 2). They fly to sixteen destinations in the United States and three in Mexico. They began a Toronto, Canada service but it was not financially sustainable. This is an issue for the loss making airline which has been effectively in the red since day one.

 

 Booking: 10 out of 10

Virgin America‘s booking system is straightforward.  This was not always the case. Installed a year ago, their reservations system was a complete disaster for weeks with customers unable to book online at all. Average telephone wait times soared to 24 minutes — four times  longer than the next-worst airline. These things seemed to have been ironed out but one wonders how many customer’s this debacle cost.

When booking a fare, VX provides a choice out of three types of fares:

  1. First class- extra leg room, free food and drink and two free bags  ($246 cheapest non  refundable fare at time of booking)
  2. Main Cabin Select  (effectively a Premium Economy Product offering Bulkhead or Emergency Exit seating, free food and drink,  free entertainment, priority check-in and one free bag- worth $25). The price difference between Main Cabin Select and Main Cabin can be minimal ($177 cheapest fare at booking time)
  3. Main Cabin ($77 cheapest fare at booking time)
When choosing seats in the Main Cabin, for an additional fee, a passenger can now choose a seat in the emergency exit in front of the Main Cabin Select row. In addition to extra leg room, this passenger also gets early boarding. This bundle is called Main Cabin Express and cost  $20 from LAX to SFO. Unlike Main Cabin Select, no bag or meals are included. Virgin America Silver and Gold Status Frequent Flyers can get  Main Cabin Express for free but this benefit is not extended to Virgin Atlantic and Virgin Australia  high status customers. This annoys me as a Virgin Australia Platinum customer.
I chose a 710pm departure which would arrive at San Francisco at 830pm.

Check in: 4 out of 10

The online check in was very easy to use.

The morning of the flight,  however, I received an email from Virgin advising me that my flight was cancelled.

The online system would not let me change my flight so I called. After  six minutes and  20 seconds, I spoke to Greg. He told me that  storm activity in both Los Angeles and San Francisco had taken its toll. Unlike their bigger brothers like United and Delta, Virgin America have fewer for rearranging aircraft for when things go really wrong. Greg advised me that one plane was “out of sync” and this had impacted all flights. He changed  my flight to the earlier time of 550pm. I also upgraded to Main Cabin Select which was now available for only $38 extra, down from the $100 I would have paid at booking. I checked in on-line for this new flight.

Upon arrival at LAX, I found my new flight was delayed to 820pm, after the departure time of my cancelled flight. My bad for not checking flight status en route to airport. If I had, I would have diverted and met a friend for coffee. Virgin America also failed to notify me by email, phone or text. After passing through security the plane’s  departure time had shifted to 1020pm.

Boarding: 7 out of 10

I discovered that while Virgin Australia promises that their Gold and Platinum members  have access to priority check-in and priority screening  on all Virgin America-operated flights, none of the staff at Los Angeles (or at San Francisco airport on my return trip) knew about this. To be fair, this changed only in October. Aussie fliers do not get free bags or Clubhouse Lounge access. I did make a choice between Virgin America’s Elevate and Virgin Australia’s Velocity as it seemed crazy to run both schemes.  It would be nice if more of their benefits were reciprocal. Interestingly if I fly Delta as a Virgin Australia customer, I get lounge access. How come Virgin America does not give it too?

The gate staff gave us regular updates about the boarding time which actually was earlier than the 950 time they initially said. Every 15 minutes, another announcement was made. I took advantage of my Main Cabin Select. I was impressed how calm the passengers were. This could be because few would be connecting to other flights and/or the respect most passengers have for the carrier.

The crew welcomed us as we walked through the plane. They were at the end of a 16 hour day which had included waiting at Los Angeles airport for five hours. They were friendly and humorous.

On Board: 10 out of 10

The first thing you notice about Virgin America is the dramatic purple and blue  lighting. Some passengers were grumbling that it was so dim, you could not properly see the seat numbers on boarding passes. The plane is laid out with

  • Eight First Class seats at the front arranged 2-2 . Seats have a 55″ pitch and a 21″ width. They have a built in massager
  • Main Cabin seating is arranged 3-3
  • Row 3 and Row 10 are for Main Cabin Select seats. The twelve seats have a pitch of 38″ and width 19.7″
  • Row 9 is for Main Cabin Express -six seats also with 38″ pitch
  • the remaining main cabin’s 123 seats have a 32″ pitch

All seats are very comfortable which is one reason why VX have endeared themselves to so many.

Takeoff: 4 out of 10

We ended up taking off at 1020pm

 

Entertainment: 9 out of 10

They have a great seat back AVOD (Audio and Video on Demand) system called RED. The system offers free live satellite television which kept freezing in the middle of crucial points in the two shows I watched.  Plus there are also  on-demand movies and on-demand television programming plus 3000 CDS and a selection of games and shopping. You can recharge devices and plug your personal player into a USB socket. Wifi ( not free) worked well.

Meals: 7 out of 10

In Main Cabin, passengers order their snacks via the personal entertainment system.   Flight attendants receive the orders via a tablet computer on the food cart . Main Cabin  Select are not asked for money but the rest have to swipe a Credit or debit card. Virgin seemed to be offering  a complimentary basic drink service. The snacks, meals and drinks are definitely a very interesting range with things like Holly Baking Company  Choc chip cookies (very yummy), BBQ Popchips and Roasted Pear and Arugula Salad. One criticism is that VX do not seem to change the range very frequently.

 

Landing: 7 out of 10

Landed just on midnight not 710pm. We were thanked for choosing Virgin America but no real apology for the delay. I decided to book a room at a hotel at the airport for $99 instead of continuing onto my friends’ house as I was exhausted and I figured an arrival at 130am would not have been welcome. On the last two times I have flown on a delayed JetBlue flight, the airline has emailed me an apology and a savings voucher for a future flight. A nice touch which Virgin America could learn from. I did not have an international connection on this occasion but on my return flight I did. My anxiety levels were raised on my return flight as a result of this experience. I have come out of this experience it with a little less faith in Virgin America.

 

The Verdict

My Flight Rating: Overall 66% (3.3 out of 5).

My Overall rating of Virgin America:   4.8  out of 5

Virgin America  has not been Awarded a Skytrax Star Ranking

Positives:   Staff, Entertainment, wifi, groovy plane

Negatives: Six hour delay, lack of knowledge about other airline reciprocity benefits

Would I fly them again?  Yes  but  next time I fly on a service connecting to an international flight, Virgin America will not be my first choice.  And do this to me again and I will be way less forgiving.

 

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  • Joel said,

    I would have gone for earning Elevate points. At least those are transferrable to other airline currencies via Points.com, much unlike Velocity points. Gonna be a headache for me when I move to Australia in February…

  • Martin J Cowling said,

    Thank you. I just fly Virgin Australia so much more and have more confidence in their long term future!

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