Review: Virgin America

I am writing this from my seat in the main cabin on Virgin America’s VX321 from Fort Lauderdale to Los Angeles. The first leg of my journey home. I have seen mixed opinions of Virgin America, but my previous flight with them, shortly after they launched, was pleasant enough that I booked this business trip with them flying SFO – LAX – FLL (on a red eye), and the same route back.

Booking 

I booked the flight on their website directly, and the process was simple, and the options for different cabins or other upgrades were clear. The one thing I would have liked would be a more detailed receipt breaking out the upgrades from the base price, though I suspect there as many, perhaps more, people who appreciate them being hidden for when they submit their expenses.

Check In

At the appropriate time an email arrived in my inbox with an invitation to check in. Tapping the button in the email took me straight to the online checkin page with all my details completed. Since I was flying with just one carry on bag, I chose the no bags express checkin option, and that was that. The next page had two buttons, one for each segment of my flight, to load my boarding passes into Passbook on my iPhone.

At The Airport

In San Francisco, the Virgin America gates are in terminal 2, and there is a great selection of restaurants as well as comfortable seating at the gates complete with tables that have power outlets. All the things a traveler with electronic gizmos might need while waiting to board.

At LAX however it was a different story. The terminal I arrived in there, and spent a few hours in on my layovers, is old and showing its age. The food choices are very limited too. Given I was hoping to get dinner there on my outbound, and perhaps lunch today, this is a little disappointing. When I tweeted my disappointment I got a couple of responses. Virgin America suggested I try their Loft lounge (I actually did go there, and we’ll get to that in a moment), and the LaX official Twitter account pointed out that the terminal is due for remodeling soon (I would say long overdue, but at least it should be getting better soon).

Fort Lauderdale falls somewhere between the two. It certainly felt better than LAX, but was lacking the facilities and food options that are present at SFO.

All three airports offer free Wi-Fi too. At SFO and Fort Lauderdale it is a simple process to get online, and you have access at generally reasonable speeds (during busy times at SFO it can beome sluggish; at Fort Lauderdale I don’t know how well it copes with peak demand since both times I was there it was early hours of the morning, and relatively quiet). At LAX however the Wi-Fi is provided by Boingo, and while there is a free option (after watching an ad), you will need to pay for faster access if you want to watch a video, or make a video call.

The Loft

Given the dire choice of food options at LAX, and a layer of several hours, I explored the option of the Virgin America’s Loft. Those traveling in first class get access here for free, as do members of a couple of the lounge access programs; for the rest of us it is a $40 entry fee (with discounts if you have silver or gold status with Virgin America, but not with Virgin Atlantic’s Flying Club apparently).

The lounge offers unlimited snacks, an open bar and free Wi-Fi, without speed limits, all with views out over the runway. There are different seating options from lounge chairs at the window to booths, as well as a couple of TV areas.

While it was certainly much more pleasant than the terminal to sit in, it was disappointing compared to the excellent Virgin Atlantic lounges at SFO and Heathrow, where there is hot food and a more high end feel to the decor. Hopefully, when the LAX terminal gets its remodel the Virgin America lounge will get some attention too (and a full kitchen with hot meal options).

On Board – Seating

The main cabin seats are black leather, but otherwise fairly regular plane seats. Reclining is very limited (good for the person behind, but not so good when you’re trying to get some sleep on a red eye flight). In first class, though I didn’t try them, the seats are much larger and seem to recline to almost flat. There are only two rows of 4 seats each in the first class cabin too.

In the main cabin, although the seats are the same, there are some options. The first, Main Cabin Select (MCS), comes with priority security line access, priority boarding, a free checked bag, a little extra leg room and free food and TV. There are just two rows of these on board too, though they are not adjacent rows (rows 3 and 10 on the planes I was on). The next option is Express, which keeps the priority security line access, and is limited to the some of the rows ner the front of the plane. It is also much cheaper than MCS.

To be honest, for the price of MCS, I was disappointed. If they added free access to the Loft perhaps it might make sense, but for the rest the Express option, buying your food and drink in the terminal (or even on board), and loading any movies you want to watch onto your phone or iPad would seem like a better option.

On Board – Entertainment System

At first glance, the on board, seat back video system looks cool, and it certainly has a good range of options with everything from music through on demand movies and TV to live satellite TV. In Main Cabin Select, these are all free. The video system is also used for ordering food and drinks while on board just as if you are shopping online. It works well, and avoids the all to common problem on other flights where the folks toward the back of the plane get less options. But, order quickly as popular items do sell out.

The movie choices were disappointing for me, with nothing I really wanted to watch. The on demand TV choices were similar, but I did find two episodes of one HBO show to watch. There are also 24 channels of live Dish Network TV to choose from if live TV is more your thing.

On the music front, there are lots of choices, but the process of getting to them is cumbersome. Personally, I don’t want to spend ages scrolling through all the music on board building a custom play list. I would rather have “radio” station style music choices. There are a few pre-created playlists, but I couldn’t find a way to just play the entire list, or even select all the songs in the list and add them to my custom play list. I’m sure there are people out there who enjoy building themselves a play list of just the songs they want when they get on board, but I can’t believe that is many. I would have guessed most people would rather sit down and just listen to some music.

On Board – Wi-Fi

Virgin America is one of a number of airlines to offer on board Wi-Fi access to the Internet. The system they use is the GoGo system. Access comes at a price however. For my four plus hours flight to LAX, Wi-Fi access on my iPad would be $23.95. I can get 30 minutes for $6.50 too if I just need brief access, and there are options for all day (handy when you need to take several planes to get to your destination), or monthly and annual passes if you fly a lot. Here are the options I was presented with by the GoGo portal:

Note that GoGo doesn’t allow video streaming services (with good reason since they have very limited bandwidth between the ground and the plane today). It is also a shared service, and while they do have some traffic shaping capabilities to distribute the bandwidth fairly between users, it doesn’t take many people to make it slow. Finally, bear in mind you are cruising at 35,000 feet, not in a local cafe, and wireless internet over that sort of range can drop out occasionally.

On Board – Food and Drink

Coffee by Philz, tea by Mighty Leaf, soft drinks from CocaCola and juices etc as expected. Obviously, there are beer, wine and spirits options too. Also, Rockstar energy drinks and a few other less usual options for airlines. In Main Cabin Select and first class, most things are free. In the rest of the main cabin, the alcohol is paid for, but the soft drinks and tea/coffee are still free. Order through the entertainment system at any time which is a nice touch.

The food options however are much more limited. The snacks choices are better than average, including options like Chex Mix and Pringles, but the “meals” are not really meals at all. As with most domestic flights, and increasingly even international ones, if you need more than a snack on board, I would recommend buying take out food in the terminal before you leave.

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