Slowly but surely, America’s former favorite airline is being pulled apart. Virgin America is closing its only lounge this month, The Loft at LAX, and consolidating gate space with merger partner Alaska Airlines.
Some of the first quirks to go will be some of the airline’s most unique, and perhaps most worthy of remembrance as consolidation pushes the American travel experience closer to homogeny.
As a minority owner, Virgin patriarch Richard Branson helped launched Virgin America in 2007 as an affront to languishing U.S. airline service. This was a time when international air travel was really hitting a new golden era. New Airbus A380s, flown by Asian and Middle Eastern carriers, were taking to the skies replete with bars and beds that would make 1970s heyday fliers envious. But flying commercial across the United States, as an experience, stank more than ever.
Unless they were flying on a discount carrier or Continental Airlines — which won nearly every legacy service award that decade — U.S. fliers could count on aging and dated aircraft, increasingly cramped seats and reduced amenities. By the end of the decade, many airlines eliminated complimentary snack services altogether.
I can still remember my first flight on Branson’s experimental domestic project, in 2009. The six hour flight from Los Angeles (LAX) to New York (JFK) felt like a window into a different era. Eight years later, major airlines are profitable once again, pretzels are free just about everywhere and many of the features Virgin helped pioneer are commonplace on major U.S. airlines.
Still, even as Virgin’s first A320s enter their second decade in service, the whole experience transcends what we’ve come to expect from a domestic flight.
Alaska’s plans to phase out the Virgin brand and incorporate the A320 aircraft into its own fleet look promising. Alaska has certainly won its fair share of accolades in recent years. But there are more than a few beautiful Virgin quirks that will soon be part of U.S. aviation history.
Flowers at every post…
Virgin America has a unique look and feel to their end to end customer experience. This starts when you walk in the terminal door, and ends when you get off the plane.
Part of that end to end experience is likely to be uprooted very soon, as the airline is merging gate space with Alaska. Fliers won’t be able to count on seeing fresh flowers when they check in and embark down the jetway to their mood-lit aircraft. So much for fresh airline.
On a side note, I hear Alaska is home to some record-holding nurseries. 😉
The best bulkheads ever…
No other U.S. airline, and perhaps no airline in the world, even approaches Virgin’s sculpted translucent bulkheads.
Sure, they probably cost more than those gaudy vinyl-covered boards that serve the same purpose on most other airlines, but what must an airline spare to give customers the best first impression ever? This upgrade is definitely worth it.
Did I mention they built both the bulkhead row tray tables and video displays into said bulkhead? Oh yes, they did.
Mood lighting like no other…
Nobody does mood lighting like Virgin. I take dozens of domestic flights every year in the United States, and a handful of international trips, and I can’t emphasize how much every other carrier else stinks at the mood lighting game when compared to Virgin.
Virgin America (like all the other Virgin carriers) adjust mood lighting not to reflect the color of the sky (which in my opinion just looks weird), but to enhance the calming properties of the light as it enters the cabin. Branson’s airlines expressly avoids using blue and green in its lighting schemes (they suppress appetite). Instead, the aircraft ceiling performs a perfectly timed fade between fuchsia and mauve, matching the setting or rising sun outside. It always feels right.
Meanwhile, flight attendants on American, Delta and United can’t even figure out if and when they should use mood lighting, leaving us all bathed in that oh-so-unpleasant nuclear bunker shade of fluorescent white.
The best recliners in the sky…
Like ashtrays and mid-cabin lavatories, spacious recliners are increasingly becoming part of aviation history. Today’s domestic first class seats are more or less standard form, while international and transcontinental passengers have come to expect seats that allow them to lie flat through the night.
That creates a fairly high probability that Virgin America’s plush, white leather recliners will forever and always be the gold standard in recliner first and business class seats. Once Alaska completes its fleet merger in 2018, they will become museum material.
These electronically adjusted chairs offer massage functionality, reading lights, extending and adjustable leg rests and head rests and a whopping 55 inches of pitch, over 50 percent more than the 36 inches Alaska currently offers on its 737s.
Fortunately, the legacy carrier plans to split the difference in pitch when it merges the fleet next year. Unfortunately, domestic first class will never be this good again (unless you’re lucky enough to be in the front of an American A321T).
The best coach seats in the sky…
Alright, so JetBlue wins and has won the seat pitch game since the airline entered service, but I have not found a coach seat as comfortable as those sleek black leather cush-chairs on every single Virgin America aircraft.
Even when compared with seats that feature more legroom, the combination of thigh support and lumbar padding make a Virgin flight just feel better than any other main cabin in America. The 32″ pitch is surely adequate at any rate and exceeds industry standards. At six-feet tall I have no problem comfortably sliding myself into and out of the back rows of a VA jet.
Alaska offers similar pitch on it’s 737 fleet, albeit in a somewhat stiff slimline design. It’s anyones guess as to how the news coach chairs will feel once the Virgin America fleet is incorporated and retrofitted.
The screens that connect you with food…
Are you hungry at one, two, three, or four hours after takeoff? How about all four. Virgin’s Red entertainment system was incomprable among domestic carriers when it was launched. It still leads all comers in one aspect of its functionality: touch screen ordering.
Virgin America fliers can order off the airline’s full menu of snacks and meal items. On my most recent flight I enjoyed sparkling wine and a
charcuterie protein plate. Followed by a beer. Followed by chips. Followed by more beer. Followed by a Coke. Followed by water. It was basically a flight long smorgasboard, like you see in those old United Airlines DC-8 poster advertisements. Add the Jetsons. And mood-lighting.
Alaska doesn’t even plan to include video screens on the retrofit A320 aircraft (sheesh). I guess I’ll have to ask politely for that third, fourth and fifth beverage.
Those perfectly shaped boarding cards…
Part of the genius of the Virgin brand comes from an uncanny attention to detail. Beyond the thickness of seat cushions and the size of video screen, Virgin is notorious for carefully controlling the volume of cabin speakers, the length of flight attendant announcements, the hue and timing of cabin mood lighting, and even the size and shape of the boarding pass.
It’s square. It fits into a pocket. It fits into a wallet. It fits into a passport. It’s just a better shape.
“We know you fold up your boarding pass. We do it too. So we designed one that has all your info right where you need it,” the airline said when it unveiled the boarding pass in 2014.
Whether or not Alaska merges this brilliant piece of intellectual property into its new airline remains tbd.
This writer will be among many who surely miss Virgin America’s unique and spectacular aviation experience.
But the brand isn’t gone. Many of these wonderful amenities live on at Branson’s other airlines, Virgin Atlantic and Virgin Australia. And who knows, perhaps someday flowers will become a staple on Alaska check-in counters.
The merger isn’t all bad news of course. The new combined airline offers much better routing options for West Coast passengers, will create a formidable Pacific competitor that can, with luck, press other legacy airlines to adopt better customer service practices. Only time will tell.