Virgin American Inaugural Trip Report August 8, 2007
Here is my long anticipated Virgin America inaugural trip report… not really a true inaugural, as I really don’t have $2500-5000 lying around to bid for a pair of tickets on e-bay, but I am able to fly on a sort of inaugural flight – the first SFO Virgin America revenue departure. Thanks for a fellow aviation enthusiast or my secret Santa! My initial disappointment in not able to get a seat on the first SFO to JFK flight was rescued and I got a precious main cabin ticket on this historical flight. The ticket cost $308 including tax and I really don’t have a choice here.
Of course, this experience was simply tremendous because Virgin certainly knows how to hype up an inaugural and it is a great party and the employees are so enthusiastic and during my whole trip, they all made me feel welcome and always came to say hi, when they spotted your Virgin America ticket receipt and/or boarding pass.
The personal entertainment system and beverage & meal order system is brilliant, and works mainly fine except some glitches as expected. Service was a bit slower than normal as the staffs are getting used to the equipments. The seats in the main cabin are generally comfortable with an average of 32” but legroom becomes real tight, if the person in front of you reclines. More details later…
So here is the link to the photo album for those who don’t want to read on:
SFO: Virgin America uses the International Concourse A, and the check in counters are located at Aisle 12 next to Northwest International check-in. Signs are pretty much all updated with Virgin America signage.
Check in: Check in counters are arranged into separate first and main cabin line. Web bag drop line goes with first class (so online check-in is encouraged), and the main cabin check-in is basically mostly kiosk, which is a bit different from conventional airline. It is a flat screen monitor that lies horizontal, and languages include English, a few Asian (Traditional & Simplified Chinese, Japanese, and Korean) and European languages (Spanish and French maybe). The kiosk is simple to use, despite the failure to read my credit card. BTW, I am their first kiosk check-in passenger (and one person beat me to the real check-in). It features the usual selection and you can pay for those exit rows on the kiosk as well. I try to change seats and that function works well. Many employees watched over me, as they were monitoring the system. There were few glitches, such as the credit card recognition system, as well as the screen states that you can check in two bags for free, but in reality, only one bag for free, and second bag will cost $10, and third bag and upward will cost $50 each. For the first day, there was many staffs around to assist passengers, and they all took initiatives to welcome you and to try their best to help you out with bags and they always said, “please feel free to ask one of us if you have any questions!” Trays of cupcakes are also available to all passengers and/or users of the airport. Good way to advertise!
Inaugural party: As you can imagine, Virgin America is famous for its party and this SFO inaugural party is no different. After passing security at Concourse A, I immediately noticed young men and women were each stationing on the beginning and end of the two sets of moving walkway, with a surf board up and wearing a tank top saying either the names of the new Virgin planes or SFO Welcomes Virgin America. Pointy red balloons decorated the whole terminal ceiling.
There is a large buffet next to gate A10, which features cheese and fruit, sandwiches, cupcakes and non-alcoholic drinks. It is very luxurious, but I had lunch at the Japanese restaurant, so I skipped the buffet. There are cheerleading girls performing various acts featuring the Virgin brand. Everything is as red as possible, and most employees were out celebrating the inaugural. They were all excited about this event.
The weather started off very cloudy but thankfully by noon, the bay was all cleared up and everyone was anxious for the simultaneous landing of both the LAX and JFK flights. As some of you know, NY had some weather problem that morning and flights were delayed left and right, but VX 1 got out not too bad, so the simultaneous landing took place at 1:20pm. Virgin’s A320 N621VA “Air Colbert” and N622VA “California Dreaming” landed from JFK and LAX respectively, and Sir Richard Branson and Fred Reid were both on the JFK flights, as expected. After each aircraft received their water salutes, the LAX flight was parked at gate A11(B) and JFK flight was parked at gate A12, and I would take Air Colbert back to JFK later. The special moment was that Sir Richard Branson and Fred Reid poked their heads out from the cockpit and Sir Branson waved the American flag, and Reid waved the California flag and that is a media moment. Then the JFK flight deplanes first, and obviously received the most attentions.
As you can tell from the pictures, red carpets were lined up from both gates leading to the center stage, and one of my favorites, SF Mayor Gavin Newsome was at gate A12 welcoming the JFK arrival guests. Then it was the usual speech time with Mayor Newsome welcomed Virgin to SFO and declared August 8th as the Virgin America Day and “Paint the Town Red” day, and various SFO spots would be showered in red lights this evening to celebrate the arrival of Virgin America. Then Fred Reid said a few words and then Sir Richard Branson, and the whole atmosphere was celebratory and fun.
Quick plane-spotting: NW 332 N857NW, QF 744 VH-OED GE Engines, JL 744 New JA8082, AF 744 F-GISD, BA 744 G-BNLA, KL 744 PH-BFB City of Bangkok, and Virgin 744 G-VROC…
August 8, 2007
VX 34 SFO-JFK Lv1440 Arr2320 Airbus A320-200 N621VA “Air Colbert”
Boarding began slightly late at 2:20pm, due to the late arrival of the aircraft, the first day of operation, and the really long speech time. Virgin uses a boarding group system, and you will see Group A, B, C, D, E, and F on your boarding pass. Pre-board includes the usual wheel-chaired, handicapped and family with young children. Then followed by First class, and then group A, B, C, D, E, F… Headsets (a nice one too) were available at the gate, and a small red bag of candies were also handed out. Then many Virgin employees, including this great guy called Patrick, who remembered my name and even helped me to inquire about upgrade possibility, said welcome and hope to see us back. The flight was fairly full and with some amount of middle seats opened throughout the cabin.
The cabin with the mood lighting was great, and my impression was “wow” and a very modern, cyber, and stylish décor was used. The first class features eight plush white leather seats and a purple transparent separator was used to separate the first and main cabin rows, not the typical white walls. The purple separator introduced an exclusive F cabin environment, but yet has this visual aide to reflect on the wider cabin of these narrowbody Airbus planes. No curtain was used to separate F and Y cabin, as FAA requirements.
Main cabin all featured stylish black-leathered seats, and the legroom was not that impressive at 32”. The seats are very comfortable though and the lumbar worked well even at the end of the five hour flight, but the legroom was its weakest part. It is hard to expect a 36” cabin like Jetblue, but 33-34” will be nice. I definitely recommend paying $25 extra for the exit and bulkhead rows. I can’t even full opened my laptop when the person reclined his seat, as well as my knee cap touched the seat in front of me, which forced me to recline my seat as well. The recline was pretty decent, but that meant the person behind you suffered a bit more. Also on top of the touchscreen, removable remote armrest control was also used too, but that means the armrest will not go all the way up. So if you have a whole row of three seats to yourself, you cannot lift them up and lied down.
One other thing you noticed was that there was really not much galley and closet space, as compared to major airlines. There is no hanging closet, and the galley in F cabin was pretty small similar to Jetblue and with oven installed. But the aft galley was the same size as F cabin, instead of the conventional aft galley on most US and world airlines, where the galley occupies the whole back wall. There is definitely no oven there, and return caterings are not possible for transcontinental flights. The two aft bathrooms were separated by the bottled water bar, which was filled with bottled water – mini or a slightly larger size. Danon of course is the featured brand. I don’t know if I am explaining well here, but perhaps someone who was there can help me out.
However this design saved space for more seats, but with the bathroom line and small galley area, the F/As and passengers had to almost fight for spaces to stand and for F/As to work. But I guess LCCs need to maximize passengers’ space.
Door was closed at 3:07pm after some late paperwork, and we pushed back five minutes later. We took off from R/W1R at 3:32pm. Flying time was five hours and five minutes, with an initial cruising attitude of 29,000feet, and then up to 33,000feet and then at our final attitude of 35,000feet, and the routing was literally a straight line from SFO to JFK.
About first class service, I will report back tomorrow after my return flight on Virgin First class, but from what I saw, there was a meal service of some sort definitely.
For main cabin, you order beverage and food from the personal television, either complimentary or paid, and there was a food menu, which lead you to the beverage, meal, snack and snack order history menu. No individual snack items are available now, and the meals are limited to a fruit and cheese plate or a sandwich combo, which costs $7-8. Beverage menus feature the usual soft drinks, as well as alcoholic drinks. The price was much higher than anticipated. Beers are $5 each but Heineken was $6, and hard liquors and wines are $6 each.
In terms of entertainment, there are TV, 20 channels from DISH Network, which in my opinion operated worst than Direct TV and some channels were not available, Premium TV, which was short subject and costs mostly $1.99, Music Videos, Movies ($6-8 depend on titles and newness), and interestingly multi-lingual TVs, which include some of my favorite Hong Kong television programs (which were surprisingly available), as well as various Japanese, Korean, Indian, Spanish and French televisions. They are complimentary. I have not tested the game function or the chat function, but they are available, only the wifi is not there yet.
The service procedure was to serve some of the initial food and beverage orders individually first, and then beverage cart will swing by, and for the rest of the flight, all foods and drinks are available till preparation for landing. The F/As are quite happy to walk back and forth, but I feel bad for them. The current procedure also creates much traffic in the cabin, and my suggestion is perhaps in the future, to roll out the beverage and food cart immediately after takeoff, and then do the on demand beverage and food service, so there won’t be scenes where passengers and F/As were fighting for spaces in the aisles.
There are some glitches as expected, and it was cool that the F/A can individually reset a particular personal television at a particular seat… so don’t hesitate to call a F/A if your screen freezes, which happens, and they can reboost the individual televisions from their control panels. It was really high tech stuff.
Flight attendants are very cheerful and helpful, and the “people” factor on Virgin America certainly rated high, although I have to yet to encounter the NYC staff, which possibly was my most concerned, especially some of my fellow New Yorkers carried some attitudes with me even at customer service jobs. So it is hard to say much about it till maybe my flights in October, when the initial excitement died down and saw how Virgin can maintain its spirits.
I ordered a fruit and cheese plate, which I thought was okay, but to be honest, Virgin really needs to work on enhancing the food selections. The cheese used are all packaged cheese from not so fancy companies, and yet they charge $7. I really expect hot meals to be available for purchase, especially on these long haul flights. The current two selections are insufficient at best, not to mention the lack of availability of other individual snack items. Around two hours prior to arrival, champagne (with cranberry juice) was offered to everyone, as well as a box of XOX Truffles made from SF. The flight ended in a high note, as we approached JFK. We landed on R/W 31R at 11:37pm, and everyone cheered after we touched down, and the flight ended in applauses. We were parked at gate A3 fourteen minutes later, as I spotted Cathay Pacific’s B-HOY World’s Asia City was the Vancouver and Hong Kong flight this evening. Bags came out within fifteen and twenty minutes, which were quite nice. It felt shorter because the walk to the domestic baggage claim was actually a bit longer.
In conclusion, Virgin America started in a high note with innovative personal entertainment system, service style, and great people. There are areas that bother me:
1. The Food selection – really limited and I sincerely hope hot meals could be provided in some ways, like cup noodles and even traditional microwave dinners, and even the normal salad and sandwich selections can be enhanced. Individual snack items like chips, cookies and nuts mix are expected, and should come out ASAP.
2. Tray Table – they use this plastic similar to Virgin’s Upper Class, and they are all white. They look nice, but aren’t they also prone to scratches and dirt, too…
3. Cleaning process – not good enough, as there was a IPOD headphone box filled with trash in my seat pocket…
4. Seat pitch – 32” is better than Air Tran, United, Northwest, US Airways, and many US airlines, but compared to Jetblue, its main competitors, 32” are really weak, and Virgin should consider an economy plus section down the road. The recline was really good, but it also meant that my knee was squeezed immediately. I can’t even have a laptop out, despite the availability of an electric outlet under each seats.
Well Virgin is in its first stage, and hopefully it can work out all these glitches eventually and I wish them more success. For the majors out there, be very worried because Virgin America actually brings in a different type of cultures and its entertainment system and food and beverage service really surpassed most of them, and the F/As, young and old, are all cheerful. However, sorry to be so honest, I still think Jetblue has a little bit more advantaged than Virgin in terms of better legroom, a decent entertainment system (DirectTV works better, but of course, Virgin has a more well rounded system and more selections, but to be honest, Jetblue’s Direct TV is more reliable and good enough for me), and “complimentary” beverage and snack service (which Jetblue is quite generous). For the same price and route, if I can’t secure an exit row seat on Virgin, I may choose to fly Jetblue just because of the legroom. Nevertheless, as a LCC, Virgin has already surpassed Air Tran, ATA, Fronter, and Spirit, in terms of service and staff friendliness and high tech gizmo that will attract the young crowd. The difficulty will be to maintain that high standard of service and staff morale in a long term fashion.
In terms of schedule reliability, we cannot say much till Virgin runs a few months of operations but from what they preach, they seem to run on a more reasonably planned schedule and less packed, and let see how that work out in the end. Virgin flew into two delay prone airports – SFO and JFK, so it is interesting to see how things will work out in the end.
I will report back on my first class trip tomorrow, and already know that I will get the same F/As.
PS. I sort of expect a first flight certificate or a more Virgin America specific inaugural gift, like a Virgin America baggage tag or sticker. Why can’t airlines bring those fun airline specific memorabilia back? That is perhaps the most disappointed aspect of the whole inaugural experience. Am I asking too much?
[Edited 2007-08-09 10:47:40]