Virgin America’s Up to Something with Premium Seating

I received an email from a subscriber yesterday asking why she couldn’t book premium seats on Virgin America for her trip in October. (Premium seats are defined as the bulkhead and exit row in coach, and they’re currently sold for a few bucks extra.) Apparently, the seats are all blocked in the system and reservations agents were telling her that they were in the middle of making some changes. Needless to say, this had me intrigued, so I sent a note over to the airline’s spokesperson Abby Lunardini and received the following response.

We’re currently evaluating a restructure of our main cabin seating selection, so in the interim we are holding select seats and guests will be unable to buy seats in the affected areas for travel past October 1.

We will announce the new offering later this month at NBTA [National Business Travel Association Convention the last week in July] and the affected seats will open up for sale in mid-September for October travel (travel dates prior to October 1 should be as normal right now and open for booking). We apologize for the inconvenience to guests, but hope they will be patient and appreciate the improved offering we will soon announce.

Very interesting. Let the speculation begin. Why would you block off these seats until the middle of September?

I can think of a couple reasons. The one that I find most interesting is that the airline is finally planning on defining their frequent flier program. You may not have noticed, but while you can earn frequent flier miles on the airline, you can’t actually redeem them for anything. They also haven’t told people how much will be necessary to redeem for free flights. Helpful, right?

Well, NBTA would be the place to define your frequent flier program, because the attendees are the ones who will be earning the most miles. This makes me wonder if there will be some sort of elite program where seats are blocked for the best customers. This would be a very interesting development, and it’s one that no low cost carrier has taken on before. I think this would actually be a very smart move on their part.

Of course, there are other possible reasons. Maybe they’re looking at adding more first class seats, so they’re blocking these off since they may disappear when the plane is reconfigured. That would actually be another good move on their part.

Or there’s always the more boring reason. Maybe they’re having technical problems they need to work out. (That wouldn’t be surprising at all.)

All kinds of interesting possibilities, but I guess we’ll have to wait and see the real story at the end of July.


18 Responses to Virgin America’s Up to Something with Premium Seating

  1. bryan in san francisco says:

    Hey CF,
    You wrote “Maybe they’re looking at adding first class seats,” did you mean more first-class seats? I flew VA for my first time yesterday to LAS from SFO and they had a 1st class section already.

    I think this airline is pretty rad. The mood lighting onboard rocks and the “TV chat” feature is hilarious.

  2. CF says:

    Good catch, Bryan. Yes, that’s what I meant. They’ve shown that there’s demand for their superior First Class product, but they only have 8 seats onboard so they could certainly use more.

  3. Oliver says:

    I think it would be awesome if there were more first class seats on Virgin America flights. They’re ALWAYS sold out whenever I’ve flown on them. I do hope that earning points on the eleVAte program will give upgrades to first class.

    Perhaps they could reconfigure the planes to have 16 first class seats and double the capacity of first class seats.

  4. Beatrice says:

    Oliver’s comment confuses me — if First Class is always sold out, why would you want frequent flyer upgrades? As a middling elite frequent flyer of a legacy carrier that will not be named, I have plenty of upgrades but can’t use them because I’m not Inter-Galactic Plutonium C-Level Executive Elite. That system is broken — just as well if Virgin America doesn’t go there. Just let me use my points/miles/subway tokens to reserve First Class and be done with it.

  5. Corey says:

    “This makes me wonder if there will be some sort of elite program where seats are blocked for the best customers.”

    As a relatively frequent (but not enough to gain any real status) transcon traveler, to me this would be disappointing. At 6’4″ I hesitate to book flights if I can’t confirm exit row (or EML on JetBlue) seating. When VX and B6 started charging for their premium coach seats, I viewed this as a great thing, as even though I now had to pay extra because the seats were always available. If VX really does block of the premium seating, JetBlue’s EML product becomes a lot more appealing.

  6. Ari says:

    Why would they need to block them if there is going to be more capacity? It seems to me that just the opposite is going to happen. And this fits the general market trend of offering the lowest common denominator and the flying public not willing to pay more for premium service.

  7. CF says:

    Ari – They aren’t blocking First Class seats, they’re blocking the bulkhead and exit rows in coach. Those are currently offered for a few bucks above and beyond the regular coach price. So, if they’re expanding First Class, it would be at the expense of coach seats.

  8. MC says:

    Maybe they plan to reconfig the seats between bulkhead and exit row to an expanded coach (ala UA E+). To do this they need to get rid of at least 1 row to get the space.

    Or expand F offering.

    Either way – IMO this is a good thing… interesting to see how they decide to offer/price the new benefit.

  9. eponymous coward says:

    Correct me if I’m wrong, but isn’t eleVAte strictly based on spend (5 points = 1 dollar spent), not mileage? Basically, I’ve heard it described as “Rapid Rewards Lite” (in that the rewards are based on revenue, not mileage, and they expire even quicker than WN’s do, 18 months), and there really are no premium levels for it, outside of “founding member”, which just means you enrolled before a certain date.

    While I do hope we get details on eleVAte soon, I suspect it’s likely to be something else- perhaps more F?

  10. CF says:

    coward – Yeah, it’s strictly based on spend, but no redemption levels have been announced yet. So they need to do more work on it, and who knows what that might include? I like the idea of adding more F seats best though.

  11. As “eponymous coward” mentions, eleVate is indeed based on spend and not mileage. In fact, I feel this is a good way to offer consistent value to the customer. Those who pay less for a ticket earn less points. In legacy carriers, customers always have a difficult time calculating how many, if any at all, miles will they earn per trip. I’ve had such experiences with Singapore Airlines and BA myself. Points based on spend is a good system for providing consistent brand value in the long term. My guess is “premium seating” is indeed being reserved for frequent flyers.

  12. WSEAJIM says:

    I doubt they are adding 1st class seats. That would probably have a negative affect on aircraft performance…notably center of gravity would shift more towards the rear making the plane more tail heavy. I suspect blocking seats for freq fliers.

  13. jp says:

    “This makes me wonder if there will be some sort of elite program where seats are blocked for the best customers. This would be a very interesting development, and it’s one that no low cost carrier has taken on before.”

    Not true. AS, one of VX’s main competitors, has been blocking seats for their MVP Golds for quite a few years. VX should have been doing this from the start.

  14. CF says:

    jp – I don’t consider Alaska to be a low cost carrier, but yes, they do that just like all the legacies do.

  15. Pingback: The Cranky Flier » Virgin America’s Main Cabin Select

  16. Mark says:

    I’ve been contacting VX for months to determine WHEN they’re going to announce the rules (and availability) of their Elevate point redemption program for free/upraded seats. VX keeps telling me, “soon.” I have made almost 10 round trips on them and am beginning to wonder what the problem is. Is it asking too much to want to see the Elevate loyalty program rules “up and running?” I guess I can always return to United, but I don’t really want to. VX has for the most part, except for one weird incident at LAX checkin, been very good: clean planes, always on time, personal entertainment system, nice personnel). Does anyone know what’s up? Thanks!

  17. CF says:

    Mark – I noted in my post on July 31 that a recent release says they’ll have details by October 1. So hopefully you won’t have to wait much longer!

  18. C Rich says:

    Flew Virgin America LAS-SFO and back, First Class. Special trip for us, so picked this airline because press coverage reflects luxury. Very disappointed. This was not a First Class service. Yes, food portions for flight are adequate – but only if you are a very small hamster with no appetite. Meal from LAS-SFO was three small shotglass-sized adult style hors d’oeuvres: prosciutto, mushrooms, etc which children will not eat. Flight attendant tried to get food from economy for the kids, but were out; gave them Pringles and a vending machine -type pastry instead. No martinis (no Vermouth), but was offered shaken Vodka as a substitute; wines were very dry (for food only apparently. if there had been any food). Seats were fine but in-flight entertainment must be well on its way to becoming an industry joke – on both flights, two of our four headsets were inop and volume would not come on for some channels; one news channel never came on (of course the one my wife wanted to see).
    SFO-LAS meal consisted of weak coffee with TWO of those thimble sized mini-muffins you can buy 18 of at supermarkets for $2.99. Flight attendant also stingy with sugar for coffee (??) and was irritated when I asked for more that one pack. First Class bathrooms occupied by most of the flight by front end of economy class despite the pre-flight announcements not to – flight attendant sat idly by and watched with bored look on face (when not nodding off). In sum, Virgin America’s seats may be worth a $50 upgrade if you need the extra room, otherwise forget it. If you spend full fare for First Class on VA you are criminally cheating yourself. This appears to be just another rock-bottom budget airline, and their First Class reflects this. Kind of embarrassed at this point that I got my wife and kids all exited about flying up front. If you fly VA sit in economy, or go Greyhound –you’re not missing anything.

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