Reflections of a Virgin virgin - my first experiences flying Virgin America

I flew a Virgin airline for the first time this Christmas season and found that Virgin America is, as its marketing “positioning statement” says, “A breath of fresh airline.”

Thanks to my procrastination in booking our flights to see family, tickets directly to our destination of Sacramento were ridiculously expensive. Casting about for other options, I hit upon flying into SFO, then driving to Sac. We would be renting a car in either case, so the difference of a couple of hours on the road saved us $600 in airfare.

A fair trade, I thought, and the opportunity to fly Virgin America would be a bonus. It would be the first time for either my wife or me on Sir Richard Branson’s U.S. carrier.

A Baby Boomer and rock-n-roller, Branson is an upstart who has never been afraid to go against the grain. That attitude shows in the airline’s relaxed, casual approach. Not that its employees are in any way unprofessional, unless you consider enjoying your job unprofessional.

The rock-n-roll theme is not over-the-top but is definitely evident from the start. Passengers are greeted by music as they approach the main counter, either to check in or just drop their pre-checked bags, setting an upbeat mood in most cases (the occasional maudlin Janis Ian tune notwithstanding).

Because I’d opted in, Virgin sent me reminder text to my phone before the flight, suggesting that, “Because it’s the holiday season, please arrive at the airport two hours prior to your domestic flight.”


We arrived a little more than an hour and a half before our 6:15 a.m. flight to find the Virgin ticket counter wasn’t even open yet. Once it did open, the counter agents took care of the long line of folks ahead of us in about 15 minutes. Would that TSA was as efficient at getting the crowds through the security gauntlet that would follow.

Once through that ordeal, we made our way to our gate and boarded the Airbus A320 that would take us to SFO.

In-seat entertainment center
The standard main cabin seats were not significantly more spacious than any other U.S. carrier these days, though the airline boasts a pitch of 32 inches (space between the back of your seat and the back of the seat in front of you) compared to the 31 inch or even 30 inch pitch on many other domestic carriers. There are also Main Cabin Select seats with a 38 inch pitch available at an extra cost.

Both types of main cabin seats had amenities that made the trip more comfortable.

Each seat has a video screen that offers entertainment options, as well as the ability to order and pay for food and drink right from the seat. Even in coach, each seat has an A/C power plug for the electronics we all carry. And of course, the airline offers in-flight wireless connectivity. For a fee, fliers can log on via GoGo.

Probably because of its casual, fun approach, Virgin’s passengers seemed to be younger on average than other airlines I’ve flown recently. Not that we Boomers were made to feel unwelcome; it’s just that there were many young people, including families with little ones, heading 37,000 feet over the river and the woods on their way to Grandmother’s house. But that may have also been because of it was, after all, the Christmas season.

For our return trip, I took advantage of the space-available First Class upgrades to reward ourselves for being such great grandparents (as if I needed an excuse). Although a relatively short two-hour flight, the fee was also more reasonable than similar arrangements on other airlines: $79 per person, and they refunded the $25 per bag check fee, so by my calculations, going home first class cost an extra $54 per person.

During a recent trip on US Airways, I’d upgraded to a Choice Seat, but would have not received a refund or credit if I’d upgraded to one of the first class seats available. Other airlines, take note!

Order from your seat!
The upgraded fare included food and beverages, including both alcoholic and non-alcoholic drinks. I opted for the sparking wine because, like so many airlines and even restaurants, Virgin America offered two reds – both Cabernet Sauvignons – and two whites – both Chardonnays. That is my only criticism: as a self-proclaimed “California-based” airline, offer California wines and include more variety. Not everyone likes Chardonnay.

Virgin America’s first-class seats are without a doubt the best domestic first class seats I’ve even flown. Done in white leather, they are very comfortable in the full upright position, but also recline more than most easy chairs. Not quite fully flat, but very comfortable.

As a result, however, there is no underseat storage in first class; everything has to go in the overhead bins. In addition, there is no place to hang up coats; they, too, must be folded and placed in an overhead bin. But that’s a small sacrifice.

En route map.
As in the main cabin, each seat has its own entertainment center that offers games, on-demand movies, TV, and other offerings. Candidly, I don’t remember whether first class passengers can order food and drink on their screens, but our flight attendant, Louis, was so attentive there was no need to go looking.

Louis was like the other Virgin crew: young and hip, but also professional and eager to please. Probably because the whole vibe is casual and friendly, his responses of “You got it!” and “No problem!” seemed surprisingly appropriate.

In addition, Louis was one of the few F/As to use correct grammar in his cabin announcements. Notably, as we were approaching Seattle, he said, “The captain has turned on the seatbelt sign, so please keep it fastened for the remainder of the flight.” Too many use the word “duration,” and when I told him so, he said it just didn’t seem like the right word to him, so he changed it.

Mrs. Prosser, my late freshman English teacher, would have been be proud.

As I noted earlier, I had never before flown a Virgin airline; neither Virgin America, Virgin Atlantic, nor Virgin Australia. However, based on this experience, I’m definitely looking forward to the next time. And there WILL be a “next time.” Of that, I am certain.

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Photos by Carl Dombek
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