By David Armstrong, Contributing Editor
Virgin America – the San Francisco start-up airline minority-owned by Richard Branson’s Virgin Group – has yet to have a profitable year since it began flying in 2007.
Even so, the stylish fledgling carrier has earned customer loyalty from many travelers who have flown it, especially frequent fliers fatigued and frustrated by the vexations of U.S. domestic air travel.
I have flown Virgin America maybe 10 times, in the Main Cabin (economy class) and Main Cabin Select (premium economy). In the process, I have flown between Virgin America’s home airport, San Francisco International Airport (IATA code SFO), and both Washington, D.C. airports, plus New York, Los Angeles, Seattle, Portland and Las Vegas.
All told, Virgin America – whose two-letter IATA flight code is VX – flies to 16 U.S. airports and three resort destinations in Mexico.
By law, American investors and executives must have operational control of U.S.-based airlines. This limits cooperation between VX and its sister airlines, Virgin Australia and the U.K.’s Virgin Atlantic Airways, though Virgin frequent flier members can access each other’s airport passenger lounges.
The influence of Virgin Group can be seen chiefly in Virgin America’s elements of style: Trendy cabin design, advanced in-flight entertainment system, fleet-wide Wi-Fi, power ports at every seat and a sense of fun traceable to Branson’s roots in the entertainment industry.
That, and liberal splashes of Virgin Group’s favorite color, cherry red, inside and outside the carrier’s aircraft. Indeed, Virgin America’s proprietary entertainment system is called Red.
My most recent flights on VX came in November 2012, when I flew between SFO and Washington Reagan National Airport (DCA).
On flight VX 1 from San Francisco, I departed Terminal 2, which VX shares with American Airlines’ domestic flights. Terminal 2, SFO’s brilliantly renovated former international terminal, re-opened in April 2011 after a decade in mothballs.
The new/old terminal is wired to the max for electronic devices, has a California-mellow yoga room, good food and attractive shops. It is awash in natural light and has generally fast pre-boarding security screening in spacious facilities built to post-9/11 specifications.
As a small, niche player, VX can’t command such amenities everywhere it flies. At Los Angeles International Airport (LAX), it uses gates in the nether regions of tired Terminal 3, but in December VX opened a LAX lounge on the second floor of the terminal for premium passengers and others who fork out $40.
Virgin America’s operations at New York JFK are in congested but easy-on-the-eye Terminal 4. Operations at DCA are functionally fine, if not posh.
I flew Main Cabin class on VX 1 and VX 2 between SFO and DCA. Coach-class seats on VX’s single-aisle Airbus A320 are 19.7 inches wide, have a 32-inch pitch and are three abreast. Checked bags are $25 each.
Despite its limitations, the service is often actually enjoyable; more on this anon.
Seat width in Main Cabin Select – which I flew round-trip between SFO and Portland International Airport in June 2012 – is also 19.7 inches, and the black leather seats are also three abreast. The pitch is roomier, though, at 38 inches. Headphones are free, compared to $2 in economy, and one checked bag is complimentary.
Additionally, VX has a separate, eight-seat First Class cabin, where I have alighted briefly to conduct executive interviews.
It will come as no surprise to the reader that First Class is best. The comfortable white leather seats are 21 inches wide, have a pitch of 55 inches and are two seats across. Moreover, first class passengers get full, hot meals and two free checked bags.
Back in the main cabin on my most recent flights, I ordered food and wine by using the 9-inch seatback video touch screen. (You can also use the handheld electronic device nestled in the armrest of every seat.) I paid by swiping a credit card on the video screen; the often-young, always-hip flight attendants don’t handle cash.
Food arrives whenever you order it, which I liked; there is no regularly scheduled meal service. Virgin America easily exceeds the admittedly impoverished standards of economy-class food service on U.S. carriers.
Heading east, I lunched on a chicken wrap that was actually good. Returning west, I polished off a decent snack of cheese, crackers and grapes.
Passengers in main cabin select also order on 9-inch touch screens or handheld devices and pay with credit cards, but the price of meals and alcohol is included in the main cabin select fare.
Soft drinks, bottled water, coffee and tea are complimentary in all classes.
One reason I felt comfortable in VX economy, even during two 5-hour San Francisco-Washington, D.C. flights, has to do with ambience.
Virgin America is very good at creating an enticing mood. It begins when you board the plane and see club-style lighting bathing the cabin interior in 12 changing shades of purple, pink and, of course, Red.
Music? There is music, in the international dance/trance mode, playing as you board. This creates a sense of occasion and signals that the flight will not be hum-drum.
Red helps make the miles melt away. Indeed, Red matches the entertainment systems on some carriers’ long-haul international flights. The same content is available in all VX classes.
On my first VX flight, back in 2007, surfing the alphabetized 3,000-song music list, I never got past the Bs: Bach, Bo Diddley and Bob Dylan. In 2012, I worked my way to the Ys and Zs, building my own playlist as I went.
Red also offers Google Maps, movies, live and recorded TV (some free, some paid in economy), games and seat-to-seat texting.
Virgin America sets the bar high for U.S. domestic air service. It’s worth seeking out.
David Armstrong is a San Francisco Bay Area journalist specializing in features, news and reviews about travel destinations, airports, airlines, hotels and resorts. He is the former tourism, aviation and international trade reporter for the San Francisco Chronicle and covered tourism, movies, media and theater for the Hearst-owned San Francisco Examiner. He is the author of five books and numerous travel articles for TheStreet.com, Travel + Leisure, Global Traveler, Napa Sonoma Magazine, The Globe and Mail (Toronto), Toronto Star, Chicago Sun-Times, Aviation.com and many others. He blogs at http://davidarmstrongontravel.blogspot.com.