Trip Report: Flying Virgin America

Trip Reports, Virgin America

Back in early March, I decided it was time to fly Virgin America. Now you know that I’ve been critical of the airline, but that doesn’t mean I didn’t want to give them a try. So when I saw that fares up to San Francisco were running less than the price of a barrel of oil ($109 roundtrip each) for a planned trip up north, my fiancee and I decided to give them a shot. So what did I think? It was good. Regardless of whether I think there’s a place for them in the world or not, there’s no denying that it was a nice experience for the most part, but not entirely.

Unfortunately, the whole thing started off very poorly. On Thursday evening, I received this email:

Due to delays in the modification of our new planes, the inflight entertainment and select other in-seat services will not be available on your upcoming Virgin America flight. Virgin America No Outlets This includes the Red Inflight Entertainment system, which normally features satellite TV, movies, games, Google Maps and a food ordering system. In addition, the plugs at every seat for electronic gear will not be operational for the flight. Why are we sending you this message? We want you to be prepared to have your laptop or iPod fully charged, and ensure you have the latest magazines or newspapers to read while onboard your flight. We’ll do our best to provide some reading material onboard in case you forget.

Are you friggin’ kidding me?!? Not only are you telling me that it won’t be available, but you’re trying to show off exactly what I’ll be missing by describing it in detail. So not cool.

Even worse, the email didn’t say which flight was affected. It just referred to our confirmation number, and that’s annoying. Of course, I don’t care about all these bells and whistles on a one hour flight, but the point was to check out what they offered. If I didn’t get it on either flight, I was going to be really pissed.

April 19, 2008
Virgin America #848 Lv Los Angeles (LAX) 840a Arr San Francisco (SFO) 1000a
LAX: Gate 67B, Runway 24L, Dept :12L
SFO: Gate A1B, Runway 28R, Arr :31L
Aircraft: N628VA, Airbus A320-214, White/Red, ~67% Full
Seat: 11A
Flight Time: 1h15m

The drive to the airport was aggravating. No, there wasn’t any traffic on the 405. There were just three separate Virgin America billboards taunting me with the messages like “Everybody needs an outlet.” That is, unless you’re flying one of their dark planes that hasn’t been outfitted yet, I suppose. These guys spend so much on branding, you’d think that they’d at least try to deliver consistently.

Virgin America Gate at LAXAnyway, parking was easy, and the TSA only gave us a small hassle for having our boarding passes on the same sheet of paper. (Kudos to VX for not wasting a ton of paper printing a little boarding pass.) Soon enough we were at our gate.

The gate areas look really nice, and there was a smiling gate agent waiting to greet us. I asked if the flight was full. She looked and excitedly said, “wow, it’s really full today – booked 113 out of 149.” Um, that’s not really full for any other airline but this one.

They called for boarding, and maybe 20 people fell into the first four groups. Then they called our group and most other people got up. Strange. Virgin America Purple GlowWe made our way down the jet bridge and were greeted by the warm purplish glow of a strip club new airplane with mood lighting.

We grabbed our seats right behind the exit rows and found that this flight did, in fact, have everything working as it should. The seats are a nice looking black leather with a hard shell back in white. The white is not a good idea, because though this airplane wasn’t that old, there was a fair number of visible dirt and scratches on each seat back.

Seat back PocketEach seat has a little cup holder that comes down from the back of the seat. I love that feature, but this one was flimsy, and one of the ones in our row was already broken off (as you can see in the picture).

After a short catering delay (catering? really?), we taxied around LAX (had to go all the way from Terminal 6 to the north runways), and then we headed up into the marine layer for a nice flight to SFO. The inflight entertainment system seems like it will be pretty nice when it’s built out, but there are a lot of options that are unavailable for now. My biggest complaint about it? It’s very slow to respond to commands. At least, mine was. Then again, everything was slow. The Google Maps display seemed to be a few minutes behind when showing our position, so it was somewhat frustrating. The system also crashed on me twice during the flight. I just had to wait it out until it reset itself and brought up the home screen again.

The flight attendants were all friendly and came through the cabin handing out drinks but nothing else. When I asked for water, they gave me a little bottle. Score! I know it’s not a big thing, but I really like the little water bottle because I can throw it into the seatback pocket and keep it with me through landing.

Speaking of the seat pocket . . . it’s weird. There’s a hard shell of a pocket meant for magazines and papers, etc. Then there’s a mesh pocket that sits outside of that where you can put anything bulkier. Unfortunately, that just takes away some of your legroom, because I didn’t need the hard pocket for anything, so my water bottle stuck out further than it needed to.

The legroom itself was fine for me. It wasn’t anything amazing, but it was better than Economy Minus on United by a good amount. For me, it was a non-issue, but I’m only 5′ 8″ tall.

Soon enough we were descending, but I wasn’t done playing with everything. Fortunately, the captain knew I needed more time and decided to circle around Monterey Bay for awhile. View of San FranciscoOk, so maybe ATC made him circle since the winds were starting to back things up, but it was welcome. If you look at the flight path for this trip, you’d think the pilot was drunk. (I’m kidding, I’m kidding.) After circling, for those who know the Bay Area, we came up over Woodside before turning southeast to follow the Bay down toward San Jose. Then we turned around again and lined up for a landing over the Bay on the 28s. It was very strange.

After a fantastic 24 hours in the Bay Area full of lunch at the Elephant Bar in Burlingame, wine tasting, and then a Passover seder with friends (see the picture from their balcony), we turned around to come back home. We didn’t have a chance to print out a boarding pass beforehand, so we got to the airport and went straight to the kiosks.

April 20, 2008
Virgin America #847 Lv San Francisco (SFO) 125p Arr Los Angeles (LAX) 250p
SFO: Gate A1B, Runway 1L, Dept :03E
LAX: Gate 67A, Runway 24R, Arr :10E
Aircraft: N524VA, Airbus A319-112, White/Red, ~95% Full
Seat: 11F
Flight Time: 1h0m

The check-in area is one place that I think Virgin has done a really nice job. There are tables with flowers and screens on top of them that allow you to check in in a comfortable setting. Virgin America Check In KioskWe swiped a credit card to check in and it worked quickly. The boarding passes printed out one at a time through a small slot in the table. I’ve never seen a boarding pass this size before. It looks kind of like the size of the boarding pass that the gate agent keeps after giving you the stub. Since they just scan the pass, there’s no need for anything bigger. Again, nice way to save paper.

Virgin America flies out of the international terminal at SFO, so I was worried that the midday Asian flights would make for a long line at security. Fortunately, I was wrong, and we were through security quickly. Then we just waited.

Virgin America Screen Didn't WorkIt turns out that THIS was the dark plane we had been warned about. The gate agent said that this was the only aircraft that didn’t have the system outfitted and that it would be finished in July. I have to say, for an airline that focuses so much on its image, this is a really stupid move. They just started service to Seattle in the last month. Maybe they should have delayed that for a week so they could fix this plane up.

We boarded the plane and the first thing I noticed is that not only does it lack inflight entertainment, but it also has no bulkheads. What a strange sight to see an open galley with the row 1 passengers looking right at them. I asked a flight attendant about the plane, and he said that they isolate this to flying short haul routes along the west coast. If that’s true, it makes it better, but it’s still really inexcusable for these guys.

Before we pushed back, the pilot came out and grabbed the mike for a short chat on the PA system. He apologized for the inflight entertainment system being out and then proceeded to tell us about the flight. It was a very nice touch. I just wish I could have heard him better over the screaming college kids behind me.

We took off and turned southeast for the short trip back home. It was a very hazy day all over California, so I couldn’t see much. Without inflight entertainment, I had no idea what to do. Oh wait, yes I did. I read a magazine.

After the flight attendants handed out a granola bar and drinks, I decided to check out the lav. There was nothing special to see there except for a sticker advertising Method soap onboard.

It was only a few minutes before we started descending. Once we dropped down into the haze layer, we bounced, dipped, dropped, and porpoised our way into LAX. It was actually bouncy enough that I found myself getting nauseous and that’s a rare event on a plane.

Once on the ground, we taxied back to the terminal, and I asked the captain if we had been behind a heavy jet creating some wake. He said with a friendly smile that no, it was just rough air and he was kind of surprised himself. Oh well, no big deal. We grabbed our car and went home.

As I mentioned above, it was a very nice experience. The flight attendants were all very good, friendly, and attentive. I wouldn’t hesitate to fly them again, but I’m not sure I’d go out of my way either.

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15 comments on “Trip Report: Flying Virgin America

  1. sfo to lax is such a short hop I am not sure I’d care about all the frills and pick virgin over south west considering they are both about the same price. On longer flights I would go out of my way to fly virgin.

  2. Yes, for short haul, VX is no big deal. But as one who does the SFO to JFK fairly often, VX trumps almost every domestic airline. And their first class really trumps even Continental’s first class for space and comfort on that long-haul flight.

  3. i’ve never even had to wait in the line at security at our international terminal. even flying Aer Lingus the wednesday before Thanksgiving: no one in line.

  4. Well at airports like LAX and SFO, I know them so well that it’s easy. But in new airports, I’ll often look out the window to see signage with the runways on them. As a last resort, I’ll just notice the general lay of the land when we touch down, and then I’ll try to figure it out by looking at the charts. I find them at the Great Circle Mapper.

  5. Cranky,

    I happened to have flown SFO-SAN (2:45pm) on the same day as you, in F. $149 one way+tax, but I had a mysterious $50 credit in my account. No idea how I got it since I had never flown Virgin America before.

    Anyway, I was completely blown away by the VX experience. Very attentive and cool service, great trio of tapas served during a non-meal time in F, Archer Farm snacks following the light meal, and Red worked perfectly fine.

    I found myself feeling a little sad if (when?) Virgin America went away.

    Well, done VX. But I feel like the whole experience was too luxurious for the fares they charged, if that made any sense.

  6. As you know, I’ve never been afraid to criticize Virgin, but I think the airline actually deserves credit for notifying you in advance that the in-flight entertainment system on your flight wouldn’t be working (though it’s unfortunate they screwed up on which flight). It shows a certain respect for the customer and an appreciation that for some people (particularly those with a very, very acute case of ADHD) the inconvenience is a very big deal. (C’mon, on a one hour flight, does one really need an in-flight entertainment system).

    I, too, have never waited in a long line at Virgin’s SFO terminal; in fact, I have found the security people there to be incredibly professional and efficient. I also highly recommend the Italian takeout restaurant in the terminal; I can’t remember the name, but their pizzas are quite yummy.

    Once cannot fully appreciate Virgin unless you fly the airline cross country. While their first class isn’t as good as AA’s business class, Virgin is decidedly more pleasant flying coach than any other airline, including Jet Blue (Virgin offers movies actually worth watching and the USB ports are nirvana for those of us who prefer to work on a flight)

    My beef with Virgin is its band-aid technology and its misguided decision to outsource its reservation system. I’d be interested in hearing about your experience with Virgin’s website. :)

  7. eric – Fortunately, by the time I had gone to check-in, the several hour outage of the website had been fixed. It was still a little slow, but I was able to get it done. On the return, I used the kiosks and it was fine.

  8. CF —

    The main thing that drives me insane in coach on Virgin is if I get a heavy-fingered idiot sitting behind me, battering his touch screen like it’s a basketball. To JFK it’s five hours of annoyance. On systems without seatback touch screens (United) it can’t occur.

    Did you notice this? It’s one more thing to add onto the dysfunctional coach behaviour list along with seat-kickers, seatback grabbers, and loud talkers.

  9. 2Smart – I fortunately didn’t have that experience, but I may have caused problems for the person in front of me. It kept freezing and going slow, so I was definitely punching it a little harder than I should have. That is definitely a problem with the touchscreen.

  10. i cant believe this guy is fussing about a one hour flight.. hahah some people think they are so “high up there”. don’t you know that sometimes there might be complications. yes it sucks. but boo frickety who.. life goes on.. its just a one hour flight..

  11. @Christine Haven’t you noticed the freakin name of the site? It’s called CRANKYFLIER.COM, why the heck would you expect him not to complain. So leave with all your “boo frickety whos”. No one wants to read that shit.

  12. Dude you are a bitter cranky person. If you dont like – heres an idea – GO FLY SOUTHWEST. Their entertainment is never down… oh wait.


    1. Wow – Clearly an unbiased view from the person logging on from inside the Virgin America network. (I can see IP addresses, you know…)

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