JetBlue vs Virgin America: The Final Showdown Part 2 – Virgin America First Class (Trip Report)

Trip Reports, Virgin America

Welcome to part 2 of the final chapter of the JetBlue vs Virgin America trilogy. If you missed part 1, my flight in Mint on JetBlue, you can find it here.

Having had such a fantastic experience the day before, I did not have high hopes for Virgin America. Alaska has already announced that the Virgin America First Class seat will be going away, and not having tried it before, I knew I wanted to get on, but I didn’t think it could ever compete with Mint. Originally I was going to come back on Thursday, and I found availability using 25,000 Alaska miles. Sweet. The price was right, and you know what? The experience was good too, thanks to the flight attendant. (The hard product, well, read on…)

Even on my flight in, I knew I wasn’t going to stick around until Thursday. I was going to visit with friends who have a newborn Wednesday night, but my illness thwarted that plan. So as I winged my way east, I decided I would just fly straight home Wednesday afternoon after my event was done. The forecast for terrible weather Thursday (and undoubtedly long delays) sealed my resolve.

On the Mint flight, I went on the Alaska website to try to change my return. It showed me a 4:10pm flight from Newark on Wednesday with availability for just the $125 change fee, so I grabbed it. Or I thought I did. After going through the entire process and entering payment, it gave me an error. I tried a few times with no luck. I tried Twitter and they said to call reservations, so I had to wait until I was on the ground.

When I landed I drooled at the signage promoting the upcoming TWA Hotel. Then I called Alaska, and the agent said she did indeed see the same thing I did but she couldn’t get it to price. She put me on hold for a long time saying she had to talk to the rates desk and then came back to tell me that it was apparently an error and it wasn’t available. Not only that, but I couldn’t even do the full fare award on that flight. Damn.

Instead, I went back online and found the 4:55pm from JFK which was a hefty additional 35,000 miles. I was tired and just wanted to be done with this having wasted so much time, so I didn’t really blink at the cost. I pushed forward, picked my seat, put in payment… and then the error came up again. This time it said it confirmed the change (whew) but it told me that my seat assignment couldn’t be confirmed. This was taking me far too long. I ended up getting the Virgin America confirmation number, went to that website, and got my seat. Fortunately that was the last frustration I had, but it took me forever and I wasn’t happy. After talking to some Alaska folks about it, I was eventually refunded the difference, which helped take some of the sting out of it. This seems to be a known issue on the Alaska website, and if you run into it, send a note to customer relations and you should get the same treatment I did. I was assured this wasn’t special treatment for me.

The next day, after the successful event, I took a car from Midtown to JFK. It took about an hour in gridlock, though the driver said the traffic wasn’t actually too bad. He dropped me at Terminal 4, and I headed in through security.

I haven’t been to JFK in years; since before Delta moved in, actually. I do like that the ticketing area feels like a place to go if you’re flying somewhere far and exotic. I wasn’t, of course, but many were. And it was a beautiful day outside to watch all the heavy metal passing by.

I had time to kill so I actually did the impossible: I walked all the way to the end of Delta’s concourse B. Holy crap, I was winded after that 15 minute walk using the moving walkways. (I felt much better than the day before, but I still wasn’t in the best of health.) It’s no wonder they have the jitneys to shuttle people.

After walking, I came back to the tiny A concourse and waited for boarding. I was working on something so didn’t board right away. When I did get up to board, there was a long, slow moving line. But once onboard I was greeted by a big white seat… and an empty one next to me.

April 5, 2017
Virgin America 413 Lv New York/JFK 455p Arr Los Angeles 810p
New York (JFK): Gate A2, Runway 31L, Depart 4m Early
Los Angeles (LAX): Gate 36, Runway 24R, Arrive 22m Early
N630VA, Airbus A320-214, Standard Virgin America Tail, ~95% Full
Seat 2F, First Class
Flight Time 5h35m

I immediately thought I was seeing things when as soon as I walked onboard I found our flight attendant Nicholas holding a newborn. This is apparently a common occurrence on New York-LA flights.

At my seat, the first thing that stood out was the incredible amount of legroom. I knew there was a lot, but it really stands out when you’re sitting there. The second thing I noticed is that these seats were looking worse for wear. The tray table holder on the right armrest was chipped and sharp (Nicholas put tape on it later).

The seat controls were worn. And the people in front of me couldn’t get their seats to work properly. The flight attendant apologized and told them these seats are on their way out as a sheepish apology.

The captain came into the galley and told us about our flight (I love that gesture). He said we’d have a 30 minute taxi but still be in LA early. We pushed back early and the safety video started playing. That’s when I realized the awkwardness of the First Class seats having video screens stored in the armrest. The flight attendant has to act out the motions up front since the screens can’t be pulled out until above 10,000 feet. The flight attendant who drew the short straw on this flight looked dead serious, trying to go through the motions without dancing along.

We ended up with a mere 15 minute taxi and were airborne shockingly fast. We had to corkscrew around as usual, but soon we were above 10,000 feet and chugging west.

Nicholas, the flight attendant, was very, very good. I got really lucky both ways on this trip. He was attentive, and when he asked what I wanted to eat, I told him I wasn’t feeling great and wasn’t hungry. He asked if I wanted to order something that he could bring later. I told him I was fine, and if I got hungry, I’d take whatever was left. He brought me a couple bottles of water, a couple of mini amenity kits for my kids (he remembered I has casually mentioned something about having kids, great memory) and then left me alone to stare out the window at the clouds from the storm front ahead.

After a bit of NOTHING to try to clear my head, I turned on the TV and watched the nightly news. I was amazed at the seatbelt management on this flight. We had on-and-off light chop. It wasn’t anything significant, but most other pilots would have flipped the light on at several points. Our pilots never did.

I reclined in my chair, and it was pretty comfy. No, it’s not a flat bed like Mint, but it’s much better than regular domestic First Class. And it is more than adequate for an afternoon flight that’s not even 6 hours.

Nicholas kept me pumped full of tea, and somewhere over Iowa he asked again if I was hungry. I actually was, so he brought me a prosciutto salad which, while small, was really good and nicely presented.

I logged on and did some work, or tried. Gogo wasn’t fast, but in a rare turn of events, it was at least somewhat usable. I did get thrown for a loop trying to log on when Gogo unexpectedly redirected me to the Japanese log-in page. Not sure what the heck was going on.

At least Gogo worked. I can’t say the same for my power outlet which didn’t work at all. The empty seat next to me had power for a bit, but then it stopped and came back later. Fortunately I had enough juice to keep me going.

We made it to the Rockies and Nicholas asked if I wanted a cookie he had just baked. I actually did and was clearly starting to feel somewhat better.

I watched a movie for the last couple hours and worked my way home.

With about an hour to go, Nicholas came by and asked if I needed anything else. I didn’t, but I asked him what he thought about the Alaska merger. He’s been with Virgin America since the beginning and had a really good, healthy perspective on the whole thing. I won’t give details since I never asked for permission to use his comments (and he didn’t know who I was anyway), but it was a good response to an interested customer.

It was a beautiful evening in Los Angeles as we chased the failing daylight toward the horizon. We touched down early and our gate was ready for us. I was thrilled to have survived this trip, and I was incredibly glad to be home. As I walked off the airplane, Nicholas looked me in the eye, said “feel better” and shook my hand.

And so ends the JetBlue vs Virgin America trilogy. Mint is a truly amazing experience from a hard and soft product perspective. But Virgin America held its own. The hard product was clearly lacking (and not well-maintained), but as is often the case, the service made the flight.

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21 comments on “JetBlue vs Virgin America: The Final Showdown Part 2 – Virgin America First Class (Trip Report)

  1. In regards to ground transportation between JFK and Midtown Manhattan I’ve found the ideal way is taking the AirTrain to the Jamaica Station and catching the Long Island Rail Road to Penn Station. Very reasonable cost, total around $10 each way fast, around 45 minutes, depending on connections. Over the last couple of years I’ve discovered that by using this it makes JFK the best airport to use when going to and from New York City. BTW trains on LIRR run very frequently in both directions and the terminal in Manhattan is Penn Station. Sure beats the $50 in a cab (plus tip) and the hassle of NYC traffic

    Hope this is helpful

    1. Peter – In this, it wasn’t up to me since they provided a car service. But I’ve taken public transit before and while it’s not perfect, it at least avoids the traffic so I’d probably do it again, assuming I didn’t have a ton of luggage.

      1. AirTrain to Jamaica and then LIRR to Penn Station works great if you’re going to the West Side. If, however, you’re heading to the East Side, take the “E” train from Jamaica. Just as quick and even less expensive. If, you’re heading Wall Street area or Brooklyn, take the AirTrain to Howard Beach and then grab the “A” train. Again, quicker and less expensive.

  2. Cranky – since you mentioned the hotel, I have emailed them trying to reserve a room for opening night, whenever that is. I will pay in advance, without knowing the date. They have not responded. If you have any tips that would be appreciated. I loved going to the TWA terminal growing up, and I still think it is the most beautiful airport building ever built. I imagine that the first night it will be saved for people involved, airport and city officials and such, but if you have any ideas on a way to get in there, that would be appreciated. By the way, the review of Mint was very interesting. I used to fly Boston to Seattle on JetBlue a lot, but have not in a while and that was, unfortunately, before Mint. Looking forward to trying Mint.

  3. I don’t know how they will turn the TWA terminal into a hotel, but it will never be the same.

    Guess VX isn’t going to do any major repairs knowing that cabin is going to be revamped by AS.

    1. Adf55 – Ah, those are special Virgin America beard trimmers for all the hipsters. They’re programmed to shape ironic beards into something even more ironic.

      Just kidding. Those are personal lights. I totally forgot they were there until landing but they are very flexible and had multiple brightness settings.

  4. CF-

    I have one question only marginally related to your article. Where do you find the flight information that you post when you fly? I would love to see that info when I fly, but I’ve never seen it offered through the airlines’ apps or websites.

    1. FlightAware is a great source of this stuff, and I usually note the tail number when I’m hanging around at the gate before I get on. I’m a bit of a nerd that way.

    2. TxDsc – Well, we have a tool we built for Cranky Concierge that spits out the tail number info. There are some sites you can pull that from using ACARS data, but before we had this tool, I used to just look once I got on the airplane. And if you missed it, you can always look it up retroactively through fed data, but that lags, so you may have to wait awhile.

  5. I flew VX SFO-JFK in first about two months after it launched. The ticket was only about $900 roundtrip, Yeah VX’s hard product is lacking by today’s standards but back then it was up near the top for the U.S. market. There were like 9 people on the flight out, That was weird.

    I lost my first class seat for the return leg because they moved the departure time by six hours and when I rescheduled to an earlier flight there was no first availability. So I got a flight credit. Then I got another flight credit when the flight was held up at JFK because of paperwork. I ended up using those credits on a flight to San Diego in economy.

    I only flew VX those two times but I have to say the vibe was different flying them than I got on American or United.

    1. Many of VX’s airplanes look pretty tired by now. As someone who flew SFO-JFK frequently, I was shocked two years ago when I flew SFO-LAS and found how old the plane felt.

      IMO, especially for transcons, VX is really quite mediocre now, in both economy and first. I know people love the airline’s culture, but as a frequent flier it’s a fairly meh choice. I’m actually looking forward to AS’s refresh; F won’t be as good but there’ll be more seats, and refreshed at that.

  6. 1) That salad looks really tasty. I hope that AS uses more of the catering that VX uses instead of their own mediocre catering. One of the biggest pluses of VX was their food.

    2) That seat looks really beat up. I guess they didn’t do too much maintenance of it over the last decade. That would not be a good impression of an airline.

  7. The same thing with the Japanese Gogo log-on page happens to me all the time, especially if I wait until mid-flight to log-on. Hmmm.

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