This past weekend, my wife and I were planning on driving up to wine country to spend the weekend with some friends. As the weekend drew closer, I decided that I really didn’t want to drive, so I went to look for flights. Three days before departure, I saw that Virgin America was, as usual, the cheapest around. Not only were they cheap, but they were absurdly cheap. It was on. (Sorry to steal your slogan, Southwest.)
My flight up on Friday morning was a whopping $49 all-in. The flight back was $99 at prime time on Sunday, but wait, that fare was for Main Cabin Select, the airline’s premium economy product. Cheap, yeah. But I was confused. Take a look at this fare display:
Now, at the time, our flight was available for $99 for Main Cabin Select, $143 for regular coach and $158 for refundable coach. I’ve often seen a tremendous premium for Main Cabin Select on the order of hundreds of dollars, but pricing it below coach? That’s just odd. It was also cheaper than any other airline’s coach, so I bought it.
Let’s get on to the trip. This was a textbook example of why I prefer Long Beach. I had to take the blue line train to LAX (at left) and that meant leaving my house just before 630a to catch an 825a flight. Had I flown out of Long Beach, I could have gotten an extra hour of sleep.
I did get to LAX at about 725a but there was a 20 minute security line. Once through, I headed to the gate and grabbed one of the many open seats. The gate area was strange because it sounded like the gate agent had turned her iPod on to play some trendy music that belonged in a cool club. It was an odd juxtaposition with the bright morning sun streaming in to the terminal.
Our captain, Lloyd, made his way around the gate area before boarding, thanking everyone for flying and saying how nice it was to have us onboard. That was a really nice and heartfelt touch. Lots of smiles around the gate area.
Boarding started and I waited for my group to be called. After groups A and B, they announced that anyone without a carry on could board. I had a carry on so I waited. I saw maybe only two or three people without carry ons, so it didn’t create any chaos. Boarding, however, was very slow. There was only one gate agent, and she seemed a bit overwhelmed as things ground to a halt.
November 13, 2009
Virgin America #925 Lv Los Angeles (LAX) 825a Arr San Francisco (SFO) 950a
LAX: Gate 37A, Runway 24L, Dept 3m Early
SFO: Gate A1, Runway 28L, Arr 18m Early
Aircraft: N633VA, Airbus A320-214, Standard Colors, Mostly Full
Flight Time: 56m
I hopped on the plane and took my seat near the front. Unfortunately, my bag, which has always fit underneath the seat, didn’t make the cut on this plane. Maybe it was the power outlet or it could have been the life vest, I don’t know. All I know is that I was annoyed that I had to put my bag up, but I wanted to keep my computer down so I could use it inflight. This is where it turned into a comedy of errors.
I pulled my bag up hoping to get my laptop out but the zipper snagged on the mesh netting pouch. After struggling for a minute, I liberated my bag. Then I pulled the laptop out and realized it didn’t fit in the hard seat back pocket. Crap. So I put my bag up and came back down to fiddle with the laptop. I noticed the mesh was a separate pocket so I put it there. Not a good plan. Apparently, this particular pouch didn’t have the bottom connected properly, so my laptop went straight through and hit the ground with a loud thud. Completely frustrated, I just put the laptop under the seat in front of me and sat back to relax. The flight attendant came by asking for drink orders for when we were in the air.
It was an absolutely beautiful day to fly, but as soon as we hit 10,000 ft, I turned away from the window, opened up my computer, and plugged in for my first wifi experience on a commercial aircraft. See, this was the first day of the Virgin America/Google/GoGo partnership for free wifi onboard. Unfortunately, my power outlet didn’t work. Damn. But I had about 20 minutes of battery to use.
The internet connected with no trouble but it wasn’t exactly super fast broadband speed. I pulled up YouTube to see how it would work and it kept buffering.
My laptop is apparently too big because I couldn’t open it fully. Actually, I didn’t even get close to getting comfortable with it and had to become a contortionist to use it. No way could I do that for a long time.
I did catch up on email and sent communications regarding a couple flights for Cranky Concierge clients. Meanwhile, a flight attendant brought me a little bottle of water. Then my battery died so I pulled out my BlackBerry.
That was a little more difficult to connect but I did get it to work. Surprisingly, for a minute I had a UMA connection which I believe would have let me make a call. I didn’t try.
Soon enough we were on our way in to a sunny Bay Area. I love it up there. We landed parallel to a little United Express Brasilia, and I got a great video. Unfortunately, it was on my BlackBerry so the quality could have been better.
With that, we taxied to the gate and it was time to head off for a weekend of wine tasting. It was a fantastic weekend up in Guerneville. We headed back down Sunday morning and dropped off our $10 per day rental car (thanks, Priceline). We hadn’t checked in before, so we went to the counter, used a kiosk, and got the itty bitty Virgin America boarding pass. (Makes sense to me – easily fits in your pocket and uses less paper.)
Security wasn’t as easy. It wasn’t a long line, but our line had the millimeter wave scanner. I was excited to try it, but I wasn’t happy with the result. First of all, you have to remove everything from your pockets, not just metallic items. So a piece of paper, boarding pass, ID, etc all have to go. You also have to pull your belt off. Then you line up and it is very slow. The scan itself takes only a couple seconds, but then you have to wait for the person watching the scans in the back to give the ok for you to pass. They have a place for two people to stand at one time, so every else waits on the other side. About every 5 minutes, they backed up so much that they yelled “overflow!” and sent a group of people through the metal detector on the side instead.
I don’t care about going through that process, but I do care how much it slows things down. Not good. But once we were through, we headed to our gate at the end of the concourse and they were boarding. The guy in front of us was turned away after they already took his boarding pass because he had a carry on and the gate agent didn’t see it. So they turned him back and made him wait to the side. This is what I thought might happen with this process. We, however, sailed right through because we were in Main Cabin Select.
November 15, 2009
Virgin America #928 Lv San Francisco (SFO) 150p Arr Los Angeles (LAX) 315p
SFO: Gate A11, Runway 1L, Dept 1m Late
LAX: Gate 37A, Runway 24R, Arr 2m Early
Aircraft: N633VA, Airbus A320-214, Standard Colors, Mostly Full
Flight Time: 54m
We stepped on the exact same plane I took up on Friday and took seats in the exit row. There was a bottle of water and a headset in each seat marking it as Main Cabin Select. We pushed just a minute late and headed to the runway, which we sat just short of for about 10 to 15 minutes without any explanation. Finally, we rocketed into the wild blue yonder and turned around for our trip back to LA.
I flipped on the TV and was sad to see that there was no football on. The best I could do was watch ESPNews (even ESPN had billiards – friggin’ BILLIARDS?!?) until we crossed 10,000 ft and were allowed to use our electronics. I do like the system they have – it, unlike the JetBlue version of LiveTV, has a program guide, though it wasn’t actually populated with information and the channels didn’t match those in the paper guide in the seatback. I know the new LiveTV system on Continental has this feature as well and it really makes a difference. The only problem here was that it was really slow to react to the touch.
I was determined to make the most out of Main Cabin Select, so I went on and started ordering food. No meals were boarded for such a short flight, of course, but they had snacks and snack boxes. I tried to order a Galaxy Munch box, but the system froze. It froze on everyone so they had to restart the thing. They did, however, come by with the drink cart, so I had a scotch and, after finding out the Galaxy Munch had been discontinued (why was it on the system still?), I had a “Food Cube” box and a chocolate bar.
Soon after, I finished my scotch and decided to see if the ordering system would work after the reboot. It did. I ordered myself a ginger ale as I was typing away on my computer, writing this report. The internet was about the same speed as on the way up, so no video watching for me. I caught up on emails and then felt the plane point down. We were already descending, and my ginger ale was nowhere in sight.
There were a few bumps heading into LAX so the captain flipped on the seat belt sign. When the flight attendant came down the aisle as we passed through 10,000 ft, I mentioned I had ordered a ginger ale and asked where it was. She said they never received the order (huh?) but she raced up and got me the drink even though we were descending into the LA basin.
After circling around downtown, we lined up for a nice soft landing right on time. Overall, this was a very good experience on Virgin America, though it does highlight that the more technology you have onboard, the more likely things are to go wrong.
Would I have paid more for all this? No way. Not for an hour flight. In fact, I was annoyed with myself when I saw that American and United later matched Virgin America’s cheap fare on the way up and I could have left a couple hours later. But on a long haul, it would certainly be worth paying a little more over the Uniteds and Americans of the world.