I Just Flew Virgin America’s Economy Plus and Compared It to American Airlines’ First Class (the Verdict Was Stunning)
Virgin America is disappearing. Have its staff given up?
PHOTO CREDIT: Getty Images
Absurdly Driven looks at the world of business with a skeptical eye and a firmly rooted tongue in cheek.
Long-haul travel is often uncomfortable.
In Economy Class, you can't stretch, you're too close to the person next to you and the seats just get smaller and smaller, as you just keep sacrificing your body to beignets and beer.
Even in First Class, as I recently discovered flying on American Airlines, it's not always entirely a picnic.
The Flight Attendant was more stressed than a Twitter-user's patience. There was no greeting and the legroom wasn't, well, First Class.
Truly, there was little to recommend it, other than that it wasn't American Airlines Economy.
I really did hear these melodious words coming from the Flight Attendant, too: "Chicken or pasta?"
In order to continue my comparisons -- JetBlue Mint Class had offered me an infernally civilized experience -- I decided to test Virgin America.
The airline is being swallowed by Alaska, something that didn't bring Virgin employees to paroxysms of joy.
Indeed, Alaska itself is going through some difficult times with its own employees becoming as concerned as cats in the middle of a freeway.
So I thought I'd fly in Virgin's Economy Plus Class, which it calls Main Cabin Select, from San Francisco to Fort Lauderdale, Florida.
On the way back -- on Super Bowl Sunday, no less -- I flew Virgin America's First Class. Just to see how different that might be, both from Main Cabin Select and from American's First Class offering.
This is the same route I'd flown in JetBlue and very similar to the route I'd flown on American, which was Miami-San Francisco.
This time, my girlfriend flew with me to inject some objectivity. (She's a scientist, you see.)
VIRGIN AMERICA MAIN CABIN SELECT.
There's one annoyance with Virgin's check-in procedure. I can never swipe my American Express card. The machine treats it as if it doesn't exist or has, in the past, had a difficult relationship with the Amex card, from which it has yet to recover.
It seems only ever happy with a Visa.
Otherwise, the whole process was smooth.
Virgin does like its purple mood lighting, but thankfully there was no trace of Justin Timberlake.
There was, though, one thing that put us in a very good mood: the legroom.
The seat pitch is 38 inches.
This was an Economy Plus cross-country flight, costing $250, that seemed to have at least as much legroom as the American's First Class cabin I'd flown in. (Because it actually did.)
We'd already enjoyed priority through security and boarding, but this was quite something. My legs comfortably stretched and I'm 5'11." Officially, you understand.
The seats, though just the same as Economy Class, bordered on having been designed for a human.
That, though, is mostly because if you're flying with someone you like, the space you both occupy becomes shared space.
You can lean over toward each other, without getting nudged or slapped.
But what about the service? Surely, especially as this wasn't First Class, it might smack of a restaurant that's closing down.
It was peculiarly prompt and pleasant. Ordering food and drink from your screen isn't merely easy, but thoroughly sane.
You can order what you want, whenever you want and it arrives very quickly.
At least, that was our experience.
The food was only of the cold variety, but the cheese plate I had was surprisingly good. Oh, and free.
You want to know about the alcohol? That was mostly free, too.
Even the tray tables slid out from beneath the TV screen and felt extremely sturdy.
I'd like to be able to say something negative about the whole thing, but there wasn't even a crying baby or, worse, a drunken salesman from an armaments company to mar the experience.
The flight was even on time.
Oh, alright, I've found something negative. The Live TV didn't offer my local sports channel.
If that's your biggest problem on a $250 flight, then you're surely having a tolerable time.
And when you struggle to decide whether you prefer Virgin's Main Cabin Select or American's First Class, what on earth was Virgin's First Class going to be like?
AN INTERLUDE. VIRGIN AMERICA FIRST CLASS.
The legroom stretched from my knees to New Orleans. Well, more or less.
The seat pitch is 55 inches.
If you're seated by a window, you don't have to bother the person next to you when you go to the restroom.
As for the service, there was one Flight Attendant for the eight seats in First Class. (On American, a lone Flight Attendant had to look after 16 passengers.)
He was bright, attentive and only too happy to help with any requests, but not at all unctuous.
He even tried to maneuver his way around my TV screen -- which comes out from beneath the armrest -- and the laptop which was, just this once, perched on my tray table, in order to place the food carefully where it wouldn't get knocked over.
(Hey, it was Super Bowl Sunday. I had to write.)
The food passed the airline tolerance test. My filet actually wasn't entirely dry and chewy. The vegetables even crunched. The chocolate cake was rich and moist.
I've had worse meals in supposedly fancy restaurants.
Let me reach for the negatives.
There's a whole list of wines on the wine list. Only one is available per flight. That's a touch tacky.
And, well, that's it.
Still, you expect something technical to go wrong, perhaps. Indeed, Live TV can be spotty when flying over the Gulf of Mexico.
Instead, the Super Bowl never disappeared from my screen. Even more remarkably, the Gogo Wi-Fi, rarely a sure thing, was astoundingly responsive, as well as expensive.
Again, this flight cost more or less the same as the one I'd taken in First Class with American.
This was as close a comparison as I could get between Virgin's two offerings and American's best on more or less the same route.
The difference between Virgin's First Class and American's is like the difference between a Toyota Prius and a car I actually like.
What stunned me a little was that Virgin's Main Cabin Select compared very favorably with American's First Class.
The only difference that mattered to me was that American's First Class seats were a bigger and better.
Otherwise, Virgin's Main Cabin Select was a more uplifting service and cost less than half of the American First Class ticket.
But, of course, there's a little twist when it comes to this comparison.
American Airlines explained to me that it actually has two First Classes and the one I'd flown was, well, lesser. It was the Stephen Baldwin version, rather than the Tom Hanks.
"The First Class product you experienced from Miami to San Francisco is our broader, standard domestic First Class you can find on most of our domestic routes. In addition to the domestic First Class experience, we also have an elevated First Class and Business Class experience on our transcontinental flights. This we call Flagship First and Flagship Business," a spokeswoman told me.
And Florida to California isn't deemed transcontinental. Or transcontinental enough.
Essentially, then, when American feels it has serious competition -- say, JFK to San Francisco -- it presents its "elevated" First Class.
What I'd experienced was its, what should one call it, debased First Class.
Which, on a six-hour flight, really shouldn't be called First Class at all.