InFlight: Virgin America First Class Transcon

Route: Washington Ronald Reagan National – San Francisco

Flight: VX 2

Carrier: Virgin America

Class: First

Terminal: I’ve flown into Washington’s Dulles airport before and made the rather long trek into the downtown area but the last time I departed Washington on Amtrack to New York, thus this was my first airborne departure out of the Washington area. Last time I was in town I remembered watching planes take to the skies while exploring the Lincoln Memorial and National Mall, so I made sure that for this trip, I’d depart out of Washington’s Ronald Reagan (DCA) airport to take advantage of its close city centre location, and maybe even catch an aerial view of downtown DC.

Staying with a colleague in Arlington getting to DCA was easy using the Metro’s orange line to Rosslyn before changing to the blue line for the few stops through Arlington Cemetery and the Pentagon before coming up to the surface and arriving at Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport. Depending on where in downtown you might be coming from either the yellow or blue lines will get you here. If there is a reliable public transport option available to an airport, I’m always a fan of taking it – and by reliable, I mean rail as for me airport buses just don’t cut it.

On the short ride from Rosslyn to DCA I chatted with some American Airlines cabin crew, who were getting directions from a local after a quick shopping trip during a layover. Obviously whatever advice he gave them before I arrived was good as they were hoping he was on their flight, alas for them, and perhaps him too, he was flying on another airline.

Once I arrived at the station there is a covered walkway taking you under the road level and straight onto Level 2, which is the concourse level of the terminal building. I noticed that this section of the terminal appears quite long, but is also rather narrow and spread over a few levels with check in upstairs on Level 3, the concourse and gates all on level 2 and then presumably baggage claim below that on level 1. I took the escalators upstairs for check in, which is a little different if you have bags to check compared to many airports around the world.

My boarding pass was quickly issued, and despite the friendly and very on Virgin brand agent reminding me many times that I had to take my bag with me and drop it off with the TSA, once I had my boarding pass in hand I walked off. The agent must be very experienced in this, as he quickly called me back and, a bit embarrassed, I took my bag the 20m to the TSA checked baggage screening point where I left it in a very unsecure spot with a pile of other bags while the TSA began doing whatever they do with them. I’m guessing it’s due to a lack of space, but having these strange boxed off areas for the screening of luggage before it goes into the bowels of the airport is a bit ugly, and seems rather inefficient. Surely an online baggage screening point in the central baggage conveyance system must be more cost and time effective? Anyway, my bag was dropped as required and I proceeded back down to Level 2 for the next security gauntlet.

My flight departed from the Gate 23-34 concourse so I headed to that security checkpoint which had 3 queue points; two on each end and a central one for premium guests. Unfortunately, the lines were so long that it was in effect 4 queue entry points with 2 at each end. I still don’t understand how security clearance points are so inefficient in the USA and always a cause of long, disorderly and frustrating queues. I think someone would write a thesis studying how human behaviour changes when faced with a TSA checkpoint; people seem to pretend to know what they need to do, and thus ignore any advice offered by staff as to how to speed the process up – e.g. take out your ID, take off your shoes, prepare to loose your dignity. Each step of the process is rather painful to watch, but eventually the premium line, which wasn’t moving any faster than any of the other lines, got me to the other side and ready for my departure.

Arriving early and without any lounge to be seen I wandered around the concourse, checked out some food outlets, bought a slice of pizza and then found a free seat at the far end of the terminal, overlooking the American Eagle gates and the arriving and departing runways. If you’ve got some time to kill this is actually a great place to sit as you see most planes coming and going, and get to observe the boarding of several gates that depart from this end of the concourse. There is decent variety of food vendors around and a couple of sit down bar/restaurant places too if you are in the mood for that. It is a little crowded, but not too bad with plenty of empty seats still available despite flights coming and going from the surrounding gates.

Departure: Once I saw my incoming Virgin America A320 touch down and taxi around towards our gate I decided to relinquish my runway views and wander back down to the Virgin Gate. I made my original booking as a cheap discount economy ticket for around $200 as the $1300+ First class ticket was a tad more than I wanted to pay. However my plan was always to try out the Virgin America upgrade process, to at least score myself a Main Cabin Select seat, if not a first one. The process is relatively simple, from 24 hours before departure you can check in and upgrade to main cabin select by paying between $39-$129 and from 6 hours before departure you can upgrade straight to First for between $79 and $299.

As my flight was a transcontinental flight, the upper end of those scales applied, which might sound expensive, but when you add $300 to the $200 fare I originally purchased, I in effect got the $1300+ airfare for $500. The only downside is that I earned points and status only on the base fare originally booked, however the rest of the service was the same as anyone who paid the full price. I’m only guessing, but I think these upgrades are quite popular as both the Main Cabin Select and First cabins were full on this flight, despite seats being available in both when I first looked at upgrades at T-24 and T-6 respectively.

A fresh crew were waiting at the gate while the previous crew disembarked the incoming aircraft, giving it a quick clean and topping up the fuel for the long transcon flight back to home base. Boarding commenced on time and being seated in First I was one of the first on board, ready for my first experience up the front on Virgin America. The window shades are closed during boarding which really helps the mood lighting take effect, with the purple colour scheme looking stunning and making the plane feel very stylish and modern.

Virgin America Cocktail

It was getting dark as we pushed back pretty much on time and after a short taxi we made a long take off roll and climbed out towards the east, before turning around and heading towards the west coast. Unfortunately the side of the aircraft I selected and the fading light meant not much of a view of downtown but for me that’s just an excuse to come back and visit again soon.

Seat:  1A. There’s something about having a “1” seat number, regardless of whether its an all economy layout or a multi cabin aircraft, the look of 1 on the boarding pass is impressive – it means you’re first and in this case, being treated to the Virgin America first class service. By the window this seat feels spacious with the bulkhead in front being see through purple Perspex; You don’t feel boxed in like some front row seats can be (although really, you’d rarely ever feel boxed in when in first).

Virgin America A320 First Class

The seat itself is covered in white leather, is controlled by a blue backlight controller in the armrest and Virgin boasts 55” seat pitch. When the leg rest is extended and the seat is fully reclined it would be very easy to have a very comfortable nap or just a relax away the flight. The seat itself is quite thick and well padded too and feels more like a comfy recliner at home. The recline does steal some space from the person behind you, but it didn’t look too bad, and if you get row 1, then you don’t have anyone reclining into you anyway, so odds are good for a comfortable flight. A pillow and blanket are provided on each seat before arrival which also add to the comfort provided.

Virgin America A320 First Class Seat

The tray table is stored in the arm rest and folds out when its time to eat while your personal TV screen folds out from beneath the centre arm rest. In the bulkhead in front of you there is a pocket for the magazine and other small item storage, although I found the cut out in the inner side of the seat also useful for small items like my camera.

Although this seat is a recliner and not a flat or semi flat bed, it’s the most comfortable recliner seat I’ve flown on and definitely all you need for any of the routes that Virgin America fly, of which this is probably one of the longest. The style is definitely on brand and is a refreshing change to the pointy end of the cabin.

Aircraft:  Airbus A320. Just like the rest of the Virgin product, its interior has been fitted out to match the fresh, young and vibrant brand that they are working hard at establishing. As I mentioned before the interior lighting is used to its best, effectively flooding the cabin sidewalls with purple light, making even the Virgin guests look like they dressed for the image. The first class cabin of two rows of four seats is separated from the forward galley and the main cabin by purple Perspex dividers which have since been adopted by Virgin Australia on their 737 fleet.

Virgin America A320 Washington DC

The first row behind first class as well as the second emergency exit row are called main cabin select rows, which is effectively a domestic premium economy style product offering more legroom and free food and entertainment. I’ve flown Main Cabin Select from San Francisco to Las Vegas, which you can read the review of here where I was seriously impressed. Virgin also have a Main Cabin Express class, which I don’t really understand as it seems to just be a way to charge more for seats towards the front of the cabin. On a relatively small short haul aircraft like the A320, I’m not convinced you need to effectively be running a 4 class aircraft, although I cant see much benefit between the express and main cabin product either anyway.

Overall, the aircraft is clean, really well kitted out and matches the Virgin image to a tee.

IFE: On my flight from San Fran to Vegas I checked out the “Red” entertainment system however that flight was too short to give it a good workout. This longer flight gave me a chance to watch a couple of movies, some TV episodes and listen to some music. In first and Main Cabin Select everything on the IFE is free, whereas if you are in the main cabin, you’ll need to swipe your credit card to take advantage of this system. Although its not really relevant for first class, a handy feature of the IFE system is that it doubles as a food and beverage ordering system. Gone are the days of a trolley running up and down the aisle asking if people want to buy stuff. Instead in the main cabin you order your food online, pay for it there if required and then a few minutes later a friendly member of the crew brings you your order – I love this functionality and wish more airlines would adopt it!

Virgin America A320 Entertainment

Of course if that’s not enough there are power outlets for every seat which you can plug your own laptop or device into, or you need to be connected you can access WiFi on all of the Virgin America fleet. The WiFi is provided by GoGo from which you can purchase a pass for either a set period or an unlimited pass. I didn’t use the WiFi on this flight but have used GoGo before and found it to be as fast as mobile broadband. The novelty factor of checking in on Facebook or Tweeting while in the air does eventually wear off.

Virgin America Inflight Map

Meal: Despite the amazing ability to order food via the IFE system, in First class the meal service today consisted of a starter berry, fetta and nut salad tastefully presented on its own tray with Virgin engraved cutlery and a 3D cube style print on the tray background which also flowed through onto the napkin design. The presentation was done well, and it wasn’t just a slap it down and remove the lid affair with each meal being carefully plated in the galley. The beauty of the Perspex divider is that you can see what they are doing in preparing your food.

Virgin America First Class Entree

Although there weren’t any options tonight each passenger was welcomed by Marc, the first class crew member and the menu was explained to each person before being individually delivered. The main meal was a meatloaf, which I’ve never really understood, but this was pretty good being served with roasted vegetables and a long bread roll. The airplane salt and pepper shaker would have made a great keepsake and I’m disappointed I didn’t remember to take it with me! Although not served separately, a rich slice of cake was provided for desert.

Virgin America First Class Main

Drinks were flowing pretty well by the time dinner was collected, with each being served in Virgin branded glasses, of course on the Virgin napkin. I had been drinking Gin and Cranberry, trying to replicate “the Australian” mock tail served by Virgin Australia, which I tried to explain to the crew. Marc suggested that I try one of the Virgin America style cocktails today, so I took on the local advice and had a Drunken Parrot.

Virgin America Airplane Salt and Pepper

As the flight progressed across the continental United States we were offered other snacks from the general inflight menu, which included some great rich chocolate chip cookies that I managed to polish off a couple of boxes of before our approach into San Francisco. I really enjoyed the meal service, although some options for the main would have made a huge improvement and I’m really surprised this wasn’t already in place. The food in itself was great, not the best I’ve ever had, that goes to Singapore Airlines macadamia nut encrusted chicken, but the presentation of the food was the best I’ve experienced in North American skies.

Virgin America Chocolate Chips

Arrival: All things have to come to an end eventually, and despite it being one of the longest fights in the Virgin America network; it was comfortable from gate to gate. On arrival in San Francisco I made my way down to baggage claim where my bag joined me shortly afterwards without any real delay. My airport experience today ended as it started as I made my way to the BART station and a quick train ride into downtown.

Sunset Virgin America A320

Crew:  Before our decent into San Francisco I chatted to the crew in the galley for a while about their job, their airline and what they like about it. I came away from this with a feeling that the younger airline encourages a fresh and fun atmosphere in the cabin, which is reflected with the approachability and engagement their crew have with their passengers. Basically, it’s a fun experience that aims to differentiate itself from the others by adding a fresh blast of colour and excitement back into travel.

Don’t get me wrong, the crew work hard, are efficient, polite and extremely professional but they do it in an upbeat manner which makes the experience more enjoyable. I’ve only flown Virgin America twice, from check in to baggage claim I haven’t come across a stuffy member of staff once – something I can’t say for many other airlines I’ve flown. Crew are always the deal makers or breakers on a flight, and for this flight, Marc and the crew did a great job of enticing me to move more of my travel across to the Virgin branded airlines.

Overall: I got the feeling that the upbeat nature of the service and style on board was lost on some of the very stereotypical public servant types also flying in this cabin, some of which might have cringed a little about how different this airline is to your legacy carriers. On a personal level, it has me considering why I have such a strong Oneworld loyalty and why I don’t consider not only using Virgin America more when in the USA, but also their partner who is much closer to home for me, Virgin Australia. I think it comes down to network, which is growing and hopefully once people realise how good this airline is, it will continue to grow. I had a great flight and can’t wait to fly them again! Thanks Virgin America – Good Job!

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