Well, another trip to SFO on the Red Menace, the infamous upstart that is causing trepidation among countless US airline CEOs. This vile foreign franchise threatens to erode the parasitic business practices held near and dear by many a US airline CEO, and may even go so far as to force the American mega carriers to (GASP) improve their Soviet style service and (GASP) make serious capital investments in passenger amenities. Clearly, these consumer-friendly lunatics must be stopped, but in the mean time, I'm going to enjoy those $39-$44 fares within California.
26 April 2008
VX 869 SAN-SFO A320-214 N621VA "Air Colbert"
I had done online check-in, but I had to check a bag at SAN, so I walked right up to the web bag drop, where a young man named "Rawrsz" assisted me. Yes, that was the name on his name tag as best I can recall, although possibly a couple of consonants may have been switched around yielding a similarly non-phonetic result. I did actually notice that his badge indicated his name was "Roberto" but apparently, VX encourages employees to wear "creative" nametags (not sure if they also encourage using excessive amounts of hair gel).
There was no line at security, and I arrived at gate 25 to find the inbound already deplaning. There wasn't a whole lot of excitement on the ramp, apart from the illustrious AS Mickey Mouse plane on a m/x. Boarding began about 35 minutes prior to departure. VX boards First Class, and then proceeds from rear to front (groups A through F). During the boarding process, I observed several passengers hand their boarding pass to the gate agent and not wait for the gate agent to return the boarding pass to them. The gate agent actually had to chase a couple people down the the jetway to return their scanned boarding passes. Clearly they were regular Southwest passengers, since I'm not aware of any other airline with this "surrender your boarding pass" procedure. I was also reminded of a sign I've seen toward the end of the some of the jetbridges at SAN stating, "Please do not feed the seagulls."
Anyway, we buttoned up and pushed back early. The usual hilarious safety demo was played, and we finally took off after the longest taxi I can recall at SAN. After takeoff, there was a single beverage service, and the full can was offered. I hastily returned my can of "cranapple juice" after discovering that it only contained 15% juice, with the rest consisting of high fructose corn syrup. The flight attendant, whose nametag read "America," was obliging and got me a can of apple juice instead. Strangely, I did not see a f/a with a nametag that said "Virgin." Otherwise, I listened to music and watched short films on the much vaunted "Red" IFE system, which has been described ad nauseum. The Red glitch du jour was that my touchscreen did not work at all, so I had to rely on the controller to navigate. Not really a big deal though. And still no "shop," "read," or email functionality, but there's plenty to keep me occupied.
I considered ordering some snacks off of Red, but the only options were chips, cookies, fruit leather or snack mix, all priced between $1 and $2 (there are no complimentary snacks in Y). I decided to pass, although I did help myself to some bottled water after visiting the loo (there is a shelf full of bottled water in between the two lavs). The galley area on VX is very smartly designed, sort of like a New York or London studio apartment, or perhaps an IKEA showroom. It's all very sleek and stylish, but not a single square inch of space is wasted. Somehow they manage to serve hot meals in F with a galley that is a fraction the size of other carriers (having only eight seats probably helps, though). Even the purple plastic divider between F and Y is a really smart design, as it allows the last row of F to recline while still affording good legroom in the bulkhead row of Y.
Arrived slightly early into SFO and parked at the A pier of the international terminal. Noteworthy spots included QF's Wunala Dreaming and the AS 737-800 "Starliner 75" retrojet. My checked bag arrived about 25 minutes after chocks on, which wasn't too bad, considering Menzies handles VX at SFO. In SAN, however, VX uses F9 for ground handling.
28 April 2008
VX 874 SFO-SAN A320-214 N633VA
Not too much new to report on this leg. I did notice that VX appeared to have a spare plane parked over on a remote stand on both days. Yet, I saw the infamous "dark plane" (N524VA) pull into the adjacent gate, having just arrived from LAX and preparing to return to LAX. There were several 744s parked at the A pier, including AF, KL, BA, CX and QF, and of course, the A332 belonging to my namesake stingy carrier, departing for DUB. Boarding was again pretty orderly and efficient, and it took about 15 minutes to board the full A320. The lady across dragged her child's car seat onto the plane, claiming she did not trust VX with it after they (Menzies) lost her stroller on the outbound flight.
Pushback was on-time, and then we taxiing immediately to runway 1L (usual takeoff runway). I kept waiting for the engines to rev, but it was not to be. Indeed, we were actually taxiing on the runway, heading over to 28L for takeoff following at CA 74. Must have had a strong seabreeze.
I know the A320 seat is supposed to be somewhere between a half inch and an inch wider than on a 737, but I can't say I really noticed, at least not with the "C.O.S." sitting next to me. Furthermore, the seat seems to recline more than on other airlines. Right after takeoff, the dudes in front of me reclined their seats all the way, where they remained until final approach. As a result, I spent the rest of the flight with my knees jammed against the seatback in front of me. All I can say is, in all the flights I've taken on Southwest, I can never remember feeling so cramped. The shorter seat cushions on VX might create the illusion of additional seat pitch, but in reality it's just as cramped as anyone else (and frankly more cramped than some).
Service on the flight was good, and I received the full can once again. The "A" flight attendant served the eight pax in the F cabin, offering them drinks in real glasses and the snack boxes with the miniscule tapas, and then came back to serve the first few rows of Y using the tray. She did not have a nametag on, but she certainly had a very sweet disposition and was very easy on the eyes. The other two crew members were older, which I can only assume meant there were on second careers. The rest of the flight was uneventful, and Red functioned well, except that the default volume between the different audio channels seemed highly variable, and some of the audio tracks I selected were completely inaudible even with the volume cranked up all the way. Also, a couple of the music videos I selected didn't properly load. But, the audio quality was very good, provided one utilizes quality headphones instead of the crappy ones VX provides. For some reason, the flight crew was very late preparing the cabin for arrival. They were collecting trash while on final approach, and the "A" flight attendant managed to get into her jumpseat just about 15 seconds prior touchdown.
Overall, another great trip on VX. Flights almost full both ways (VX does not overbook), and F cabin sold out on the outbound, and full with $50 upgrades on the return. They really do have a great product, and it seems like operationally they are improving. I've flown VX seven times now, and only one flight was late (frankly, I think SFO's reputation for delays is a bit exaggerated, as my san/sfo flights on AS last year were also quite punctual). I'm still curious to see details of the FF program, however, and am not sure I can continue to justify flying with them in lieu of earning points/miles on other carriers. And, I paid $39 each way, which seems to be the going rate right now. The clientele seemed to consist of the "egg and chips brigade" both ways, with lots of small children on the return flight. I know SAN is a leisure destination, but I'd feel a lot better if I saw signs that VX was getting more corporate and high yield traffic. There is no way they are making money in the present cost environment with fares so low.