Welcome to my Virgin American Inaugural report from San Francisco to Seattle and back! This report will basically cover the details on the inaugural flights and what kind of service you can expect on Virgin America’s new service on this new route. Since I also include the four segments on Alaska Airlines required to qualify for doubles miles on the SEA to SFO/LAX flights for the rest of 2008, I can do a comparison especially Alaska has also started its upgraded first class food service on these two routes. I honestly think what Virgin America is doing is really bringing back the care that Alaska Airlines did in the pre-2000 years, and when Alaska still cared about the passengers. What Virgin is doing is nothing dramatic, but basically brings me the basic respect for passengers and add fun to the flights with the modern touch. What I want is a nice plane to fly on, comfortable seats in both first and coach, and great food. I don’t mind BOB in Y, but give us variety and fresh food to buy, not some stupid picnic basket. I will try to give a comparison, and am not in the aviation view and pardon my amateur view, and please don’t shoot the messenger and I will not hold back in that party, whether you like it or not.
Virgin America – keep it up or else you will lose your hype quickly like Jetblue!
Here are my full flight details and photo link for the respective flights:
March 18, 2008
VX 734 SFO-SEA Lv0800 Arr1000 Airbus A320-200 N625VA “Jefferson Airplane”
VX 737 SEA-SFO Lv1400 Arr1605 Airbus A320-200 N625VA “Jefferson Airplane”
AS 333 SFO-SEA Lv1825 Arr2028 Boeing 737-800 with winglet N563AS
March 19, 2008
AS 326 SEA-SFO Lv0725 Arr0938 Boeing 737-800 with winglet N585AS “Lei”
All meal pictures
AS 331 SFO-SEA Lv1200 Arr1400 Boeing 737-800 with winglet N585AS “Lei”
All meal pictures
AS 468 SEA-LAX Lv1710 Arr1946 Boeing 737-400 N772AS
Photo album is the Anytime Picnic Basket and no plane or cabin pictures.
Virgin America VX 734 Inaugural at San Francisco March 18, 2008:
Check-in: Because of the inaugural nature of this flight, I decided to arrive at the airport early, which meant a 5am morning call, and I took the 6am shuttle from Hampton Inn Burlingame. The Virgin America counters were relatively quiet, as there were only a few early flights, and the counters were well staffed and I immediately went to one of the kiosks to check in. It was easy to use and soon I was on my way to the security checkpoint. Not much festivity at the check-in, except a few Seattle signs.
Gate: N625VA “Jefferson Airplane” was already at the gate at A12 this morning. There was a sumptuous continental breakfast buffet setup at the other side of the gate with Seattle coffee, bagels, donuts, Danish pastries, Pain au Chocolat, and a large fruit plate. The loading was not too heavy but many Virgin America employees began to show up, as well as the CEO David Cush. Around 7am, things started to heat up a bit and more people arriving at the gate, and the gate agents lead for a few games to celebrate the inaugural. The first game was based on the Sky Needle and the contestants had to throw these balloon rings and tried to catch the top of the Sky Needle. Of course, the price was a free roundtrip ticket but nobody won. I tried but it was not too hard. Then there was fish toss game and two ground agents wearing Pike Street Market aprons threw out this plastic fish signed by VX employees, and one lucky participant got a Starbuck gift certificate for $10 and one got a Virgin America certificate. Then David Cush did a simple ribbon cutting ceremony and we were all set to go to Seattle.
Boarding: Boarding began at 7:40am and four cheerful flight attendants welcome us. They would be traveling on both sectors this morning. Kelly was in charge of first class and the boys, Rudy, Rob, and Eric stayed at coach. Door was closed two minutes early at 7:58am and we beat the Jetblue flight to JFK and got to push back at 8am, and soon headed over to Runway 1R. We took off at 8:11am and it was a beautiful day at the Bay Area.
Flight fact: Flying time was estimated to be an hour and thirty-eight minutes, but ended up six minutes longer. We stayed at 38,000feet, and here is our routing according to flight aware.
Service began with the boys passing out “Vir-million” champagne, which was a mixture of champagne and cranberry juice. It tasted fine. A bit early for champagne, but it is the inaugural flight! Perfect excuse for a wakeup drink! Not much people purchased the snack menu because we were all full from the breakfast buffet. Even I resisted the temptation to order the yogurt parfait, which I like! To answer some of your questions, here is a list of food offered! Yes, the full menu will be offered on flights that are two hours and above. Also I will like to see hot food offered in the near future!
Turkey Bacon Warp $9
Half Caprese Sandwich with Salad (Greek Style) $8.50
Fruit and cheese plate $12
All Archer Farm products (You can buy them at Target’s, and I actually like this brand after flying Virgin America and my recent visit to Target ended up with lots of Archer Farm’s cranberry trail mix bars and other cereal and granola bars)
Snack Mix $2
Breakfast Oat Bar $1
Chocolate Chip Cookies $2
Organic Cranberry Mix Bar $1
Strawberry Fruit Leather $1
Buffalo Wing Chips $2
I just had a cup of tea and bottled water for the flight. There was a quick second run but everyone was happy.
Virgin RED was available, but the TV once again was not working. That is my major problem with DISH network. I don’t know why that it just does not work as well as Direct TV on the Jetblue planes. Virgin America said that they would add antennas to the planes to make them work better and got better signals. Finally David Cush decided to comp everyone televisions and movies, so people got something to watch throughout the flight. Great rescue effort! I think this should be the protocol for now even when David Cush was not onboard! I just used the google map function and read my novel.
The flight was cheerful and the staffs had a big party in the aft section. The boys came back and passed out boxes of Charles chocolate to everyone, and a great way to end the flight.
Descent began at 9:27am and seat belt sign was turned back on at 9:36am, as there were some chops as we made our approach to Seattle. We landed on Runway 16C at 9:55am, and we parked at gate A6 four minutes later. Of course, we got a proper water salute as we parked at the gate.
Of course, it was all party atmosphere at Seattle, and we walked out to a red carpet with the whole Seattle ground staff welcoming us. There was a big party for the press and unfortunately the area was roped off. I sort of think Virgin America should make an announcement soon after the door was opened and welcomed arriving passengers to the party and took part of the buffet and more Vir-million.
Virgin America Inaugural Seattle to San Francisco service – March 18, 2008:
Check-in: Seattle Airport was pretty busy at these mid-morning hours and the line for Continental was long beyond recognition due to weather in the middle part of the nation. Check-in counters were located between Northwest/KLM and US Airways, and the area was actually pretty large for a start-up airline and I think Virgin was here for the long term. There were two separate check-in lines for first and coach passengers, and with two large tables of kiosks (four each), and many staffs welcomed passengers. A very friendly employee checked me in, and unfortunately, they did not issue the full-sized boarding passes at Seattle.
I headed over to the security line, which was really, really long, so since I was in first class, I asked about the fast track service. The TSA agent obviously did not know Virgin America well, but she was cheerful enough to let me go to the first class line, but Virgin should add a first class sticker to the boarding pass and some large and visible signs that TSA will be able to tell that it is a first class passenger. Also please update the sign! I am not sure if Virgin America is part of the fast track service, but hopefully someone from VX can answer the question here! Does VX allow first class passengers to use the priority security line?
Gate: A6 will be the Virgin America standard gate for now and Swissport is the ground agent here. LSG Sky Chef will provide catering service here. There was another buffet setting up for passengers, and the selection included salad, sandwiches, chocolate chip cookies, more “Vir-Million” cocktails, bottled beverages, and coffee. David Cush did another ribbon cutting ceremony at Seattle, and boarding soon began at 1:28pm.
Bottled waters were placed already at the console and all the reactions were positive, and some passengers were already commenting that these seats were just so much better than Alaska Airlines. Are you sure? I don’t think there is no comparison. Full pre-takeoff beverage was offered, and once again, something Alaska Airlines does not offer. Everyone got his or her cocktails and Kelly offered very efficient service without being intrusive. Some may find it a bit more formal, but I appreciate it. Friendly, but not overly chatty! More comments on that later!
Door was closed at 2:01pm, as we had to wait for a few late revenue passengers. We pushed back at 2:03pm and headed towards R/W16R. We took off at 2:14pm, and headed towards South.
Flying time was estimated at an hours and forty minutes, and the actually flying time was only a minute longer. We cruised at 37,000feet, and here is our flight plan:
I have to say that I am really surprised that a full hot meal was offered like transcontinental flight. I expect the usual appetizer trio and maybe with some warm breads. And I know that first class passengers can request snacks for coach and got them free anyway. I did check with Kelly, the inflight team leader, and she reaffirmed me that a hot meal will be offered on all flights in first class two hours and above. I will fly this route in first class next week and will give you all an update.
The service began with cocktails and the trio appetizers, which include a soba noodle (Japanese bulkwheat noodles) with vegetables, a very nice Portobello Mushroom salad, and a diced ham salad. Then three kinds of bread rolls were offered – French, Wheat or Rustic, and I had a nice warmed soft wheat roll. For entrees, we had a choice of Vegetable Ravioli or a Potato Gnoochi topped with shredded beef and carrots and onions. And then we had the Charles’ chocolates as dessert. It was a bit simplified as no full dessert was offered. Nonetheless, it was nice. I will let you know what the meal will be like next week or someone else can report back.
Virgin RED was finally working at this leg and most television channels were working. First class had complimentary access to all movies and television programs, which were very nice. The F/As remained attentive for the short brief flight and I had a great chat with my neighbor from the UK. I wish him a great stay at San Francisco and I know you will read this report.
Descent began at 3:25pm, and seat belt sign was turned back on at 3:43pm and we landed on R/W28L at 3:55pm, and parked at gate A1A exactly at 4pm, five minutes ahead of schedule.
International Terminal Concourse A was pretty quiet, as we missed the early afternoon Asian rush and the earlier European rush. I got a few registration numbers – Air France’s Airbus A340-300 F-GLZL, KLM’s Boeing 777-200ER PH-BQN, Virgin Atlantic’s Boeing 747-400 G-VHOT, and British Airways’ Boeing 747-400 G-CIVK. I want to see the CX, but CX 872 was delayed till 5:42pm that afternoon.
How did Alaska Airlines react?
Well Alaska Airlines has an employee spirit day, as well as protests from Alaska Airlines. What a great way to start! There were also balloons at the check-in areas and most employees were this “West Most” t-shirts, in anticipation to the bi-hourly flights between SEA and SFO, and hourly flights between SEA and LAX beginning April 7, 2008. Most flight attendants were aware of Virgin America’s startups and tried very hard to be funny or be impressive. All three segments between Seattle and San Francisco featured the upgraded food. I had the Asian rice noodle salad with chicken satay, Thai dressing, warm roll and chocolate from Seattle Chocolates, as well as the enhanced fruit bowl with full-sized Bear claw – almond Danish. Economy class really did not see many differences, and no one offered me, a MVP gold a free alcoholic beverage too, when I flew back to Los Angeles in main cabin.
Well Alaska Airlines has lost much of its innovation in service during the past decade, but one thing it continues to do well is alaskaair.com, which is still amazing till now. Yes buying a ticket is easy and you can access the seat map prior to booking. It is user-friendly, and calling Alaska Airlines reservation line is not a hassle and the agents especially MVP desk are always friendly and helpful. Nothing is too much. Not many airlines can accomplish these seemingly easy tasks. Alaska does very well. Virgin America’s website is also very easy to navigate and you can also access seat maps before booking but there are still some glitches that it can work on. I will really appreciate if I can change my seats at anytime after purchasing the tickets, and hopefully I will allow to use my credit balance directly online in the future. I had to call in reservation actually because of some problems, and the VX agent seemed to be not knowledgeable about the airline and not as helpful and friendly as Alaska. But anyway, it is a startup so I will say both of them did fairly well, but Alaska has an edge and I have no doubt saying alaskaair.com as the best airline website to use.
Both Alaska Airlines and Virgin America setup some great kiosks for everyone to use. Virgin America is slightly more user friendly and I like the face down screen, as well as real cardboard boarding passes being used, not those flimsy boarding pass. Ground agents – Alaska Airlines has used to be known to have many friendly agents, and many of them are still. Virgin America is also another airline with very consistent friendly staff willing to help at all times. So both of them were equally well with Virgin America staff more energetic and ready to help. I also think the kiosk was really nicer with Virgin America. But Alaska Airlines is equally fine.
Boarding procedures is a mess with Alaska Airlines, and the current system makes no sense. First Class/MVP boarding lanes are good features, but people always go to the wrong line even with clear labels. And Virgin America’s zone boarding makes more sense and actually helps to reduce the boarding time.
Elevate is still mostly wrapped and nothing much is announced. However, Alaska Airlines Mileage Plan will always hold an advantage because you can issue tickets on many airlines, and the current double miles program will work. Unfortunately Virgin America really cannot do much, but I still think a double points program can also easily be introduced too. But Virgin is low cost airline, in which mileage program will remain weak regardless.
Well, both my inaugural flights departed on time and arrived on time and even a bit early. Out of my four Alaska Airlines segments, only one was on time and early, and the rest was slightly late, which was not so bad considered Alaska Airlines’ poor record. I know it is still unfair, as Virgin America has just started the flight and the statistics are unreliable for now. SFO is also a problematic and weather prone airport. However, my primary concern with Alaska airlines’ “West Most” program is with this reliability issue, in which Alaska Airlines continues to face. I still blame it on its overly short turnaround time, which is very difficult when airports at both ends are delayed prone. I am not very confident as of now. Frequent schedules will be its strength, but running them on time is more important to me, as a traveler. Not to mention frequent cancellation when loading is not strong.
Virgin America is understandably low in terms of loading especially in the beginning, but first class were 100% full. Even CEO David Cush sat in coach, but they blocked row 3 for him and he welcomed anyone to talk to him. Alaska Airlines were very full on all three segments between Seattle and San Francisco, and the last segment SEA to LAX was also 100% full – 141 passengers to be exact. The lightest flight was the noon flight from San Francisco to Seattle, but first class went out full, and economy class was 80% full. It will take time for Virgin America to build up its load, but I really think VX needs to expand its first class to twelve seats because it can easily gain a loyal first class customer base. Keep first class fares reasonable and you can gain some passengers easily. Alaska to some extent uses that strategy too, and VX has a much larger advantage because that first class seat is just amazing for domestic travel. Virgin also needs to promo its first class more often.
First Class – I had the best first class seat out of the Alaska Airlines fleet for the three flights I got upgraded. The first class seats at the Boeing 737-800s are nice, comfortable, and I like the winged headset. Unfortunately, the rest of the fleet were not so nice. Boeing 737-700s are very bad especially after the reconfiguration. Nevertheless, Virgin America’s seats are just 100% better and the comfortable leather seats can easily be international business class seats in the last decade before the advent of the current generation of lie-flat seats. The white leather seats are classy and the message functions were nice. Everything was well designed.
Main Cabin – the seat pitch on Alaska Airlines’ reconfigured Boeing 737-400/700/800 is pretty tight, despite AS still claims its seat pitch is 32”. The design of the seats allows them to be slimmer and therefore more legroom. Regardless of how you spin it, they are still pretty tight. The new leather seats are not that bad really, but the seat pitch bothers me, and Virgin America seats are also at 32” but feel more spacious. Maybe the biggest different is the width. The narrowbody fleet of the Airbus A320 family just feels wider and even the next generation of Boeing 737 cannot beat that impression. Virgin America’s black leather seats are also more comfortable and I sat on exit rows in both airlines, and even Virgin America’s seats feel more comfortable. In old times, Alaska Airlines actually has better seat pitch and more well-padded seats, but the current AS administration does not seem to care about passengers’ comfort but find ways to add more seats. I find the seats are less comfortable after the reconfiguration, and with Alaska running fuller flights, Alaska’s economy cabin looks so uncomfortable. Virgin America wins by large margins here. But I think Virgin can consider expanding the extra legroom section like Jetblue down the road.
Both airlines have great flight attendants, and the usual bad apples. Alaska Airlines’ flight attendants are more down-to-earth, cheerful, and some of the old-timers are just fabulous and cannot do enough. Of course, I lately saw more often the lazy bunch, who disappeared after the beverage service. Regardless, Alaska F/As are cool in getting you drinks. Tessa on AS 326 and 331 are super nice and addressed by names throughout the flight, which is unusual, but I have to give her credits. Virgin America F/As on the other hand seem to be more formal. They are efficient and polite and observant. They will ask you if you want a sandwich or save you your meal when you are asleep. Nothing is too much! But they are less chatty than Alaska Airlines F/As and less warm in some ways. I think it is just really down to your own personal preference. On these six flights, all flight attendants from both airlines are great, but Alaska F/As are just more tired and not as highly spirited as the Virgin’s F/As, who are obviously newer and more enthusiastic. Tessa is a great example when Alaska shines, but these days Tessa is more like in the minority. Alaska needs to try harder to rescue the past reputation. Virgin America needs to work on maintaining the spirits and keep the F/As feel motivated! Anyway, VX F/As, Kelly, Rob, Rudy, and Eric, are great and really look forward seeing you all in the future and enjoy the brownies!
Beverages and food:
First Class – Alaska Airlines actually has a nice array of unique Pacific Northwest wines and beers, which are good. The upgraded food is a nice addition and makes me feel that the old Alaska has returned. Alaska Airlines offer a good basic service in first class. With the upgraded food, the overall service looks better. Virgin America offers a full hot meal on these two hours flight and unlimited snacks, everything from a fruit and cheese plate to sandwich, not to mention a whole family of Archer Farm’s snack products. There are options, varieties and a real hot meal, not two skewers of chicken on top of undercooked “fake” Asian noodle salad. Beverage menus were not as strong as Alaska, but you can find the usual array of alcoholic and non-alcoholic beverages, and not to mention a full pre-takeoff beverage, considered bottled waters were already offered like Alaska Airlines.
Main Cabin – Alaska Airlines offers beverage in cups, unless requested. It is also nice that the F/As does a second beverage runs on longer flights. Yes, there is complimentary snack – a pack of sprintzel, which was gross at best, and if you need something heartier, you have one choice – the anytime Picnic basket for $5. That snack basket can calm down your hunger for a few hours if you can’t buy food in the airport, but definitely not a full meal. I took pictures of that you can check it out yourself. Virgin America has a bottled water bar in economy class, and unlimited beverages. Alcoholic beverages are pricier than Alaska airlines, which is a weak point. You can order a sandwich and another diet coke anytime during the flight, even after the meal service. What more can you ask for in coach? The complete snack menu is stated above.
Alaska Airlines has a very nice inflight magazine, and that will be your complimentary entertainment and yes, you can bring the magazine home. Virgin America offers Virgin RED, which features music, live television, movies and television programs, not to mention chatting with fellow passengers and other cool functions. Headsets are free too. First class got everything for free, and economy class passengers had to pay for some television programs, as well as movies, but still had free live TV and music. Alaska can’t even compete even when they installed Internet.
Both promised to offer Internet in the near future, but nothing is sure for now, and not sure about the charges for those services too. Virgin America offers electrical power outlets for laptops and USB drive for IPOD.
Alaska Airlines offer eight flights between SEA and SFO, and fifteen flights between SEA and LAX, while Virgin America offers three flights between SEA and SFO, and four flights between SEA and LAX. Alaska Airlines also flies to all major Los Angeles airports (Long Beach, Burbank, Ontario, and Orange County) and Bay Area Airports (San Jose and Oakland). Alaska Airlines wins hand down.
Honestly I think both airlines have their advantages and disadvantages, and both airlines are known to be customer-friendly or focused, even though Alaska Airlines really loses that care aspect a few years ago especially with the current CEO. Virgin Amerca’s entry into the Seattle market really gives Alaska Airlines to really refocus on that customer aspects that are lost, and wish both airlines best of luck and as customers, Virgin America so far has brought low first and economy class fares to whatever routes that it flies, so it is good news right.
There is no doubt that Alaska Airlines will stay and lose some market shares to Virgin America. What it is doing now is typical responses from major airlines to entry of low cost airlines, and of course, squeezing so many flights in the market is a typical step. However, I am not sure if it is a smart move considered the current price of fuel and of course, Alaska’s major problem is its on time and reliability records that I have serious doubts. More flights are good for business travelers, but running them on time is more important, right? My last segment from Seattle to Los Angeles actually closed early and we departed on time, and yet we were still late on our arrival and when we were at the gate, we were fourteen minutes late. Its turnaround time is unrealistic especially flying into these major airports. It needs to pad its schedule please! It is not the first day that Alaska flies to LAX or SFO. Those airports can be delayed prone even with perfect weather at busy times. Virgin America allows more turnaround time at these airports, which is a smart move, and Alaska Airlines’ boarding procedure is a mess. I think Virgin learns its lessons from Jetblue and more cautious with turnaround times. Alaska’s 40-minutes turnaround time is just not good enough and they need to pad their schedules more. I honestly don’t care about the fifteen flights, but how about running them on time, which I care more? They can even have a flight every thirty minutes, but if you can run them on time, you will still lose that business traveler. Also don’t pull that cancellation crap!
Even though Alaska Airlines serves a much larger market than Virgin America because Alaska LAX flights serve as a feeder flights for its huge Mexican network and also Seattle and Portland are hubs for lots of Pacific Northwest smaller destinations. Alaska Airlines can fill in those flights especially LAX for sure with or without Virgin America, but I have more doubt about San Francisco because Virgin America is a stronger brand here, and Alaska has less feeder flights. Regardless Virgin America needs to increase the flight frequencies to attract business travelers. I think Seattle to San Francisco can work and VX needs at least five to six flights and VX can do well. Seattle to Los Angeles is more competitive market, but can also work for VX. Judging from Alaska’s full loads on these flights, VX can slowly build it up to six flights a day and to build a loyal business traveler base. An airline cannot be successful without some business travelers backing them up.
Alaska Airlines needs to work on first making these new shuttle like schedules work and actually ran them on time. I am just so sick of these delays. Mileage Plan is a good way to remind the AS strong customer base and I am sure double miles or some other promotions will continue to be needed especially when the low fall season arrives. The new improved food service in first class is a good step and brings me a bit of the Alaska airlines past back. Alaska Airlines may want to consider matching Virgin’ first class fares too.
Virgin America needs to build more frequencies because I still believe the key to success is to win the heart of business travelers, and with an affordable first class fares, Virgin can win some major customers here. I also think expanding Virgin’s first class cabin to twelve or even sixteen seats (on the A320s) will be good because Virgin seems to get much additional revenue from first class cabin, either paid upgrades or full fare passengers. Alaska Airlines in some way lowers their first class fares to lure business travelers too, and with Virgin America’s superior premium cabin, I don’t see why it won’t work. Ideally six on SEA-SFO and six on SEA-LAX, and with the connections to San Diego and Las Vegas, and even east coast cities of Washington DC Dulles and New York JFK (and the two soon-to-be announced east coast destinations). I think SEA-SAN can also work down the road with two flights a day. I also want to caution to keep up the hype as it expands, and don’t fall into the trap of Jetblue, and just lose all the hypes overnight. Be careful on what you are doing and on quality control! Keep the employees happy! Elevate will be important and it may be time to fully announce the details. Also that “dark” A319 got to go. No excuse whatsoever!
I hope I did not upset anyone here, but here are my thoughts!
Lastly, Virgin America, you need to give out a real souvenir on these inaugural flights to help us remember them! They do not need to be fancy or expensive, but a simply flight certificate, sticker, or commemorate postcards, or even a simple baggage tag will be great. I am old school and like first flight certificate, so please have them ready next time! Two more inaugural flights hopefully this year and hopefully you can bring them out!
I had a great flight on Virgin America and look forward to my next flight! I can’t find a better way to travel up and down the coast or from coast to coast then on Virgin America’s first class!