As Virgin America fades out, we’ll miss these quirks forever

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…

Flowers on the pedestal at Virgin America's Portland International Airport (PDX) gate.

Flowers on the pedestal at Virgin America’s Portland International Airport (PDX) gate.

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…

Forget about those obnoxious and filthy armrest tray tables. Virgin built its bulkhead IFE screens and tray tables into a translucent cabin divider. To all other airlines: this is the only acceptable way to do this. (Image courtesy Virgin America)

Forget about those obnoxious and filthy armrest tray tables. Virgin built its bulkhead IFE screens and tray tables into a translucent cabin divider. To all other airlines: this is the only acceptable way to do this. (Image courtesy Virgin America)

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…

The mid-day mood lighting setting on a Virgin America flight from Portland (PDX) to San Francisco (SFO).

The midday mood lighting setting on a Virgin America flight from Portland (PDX) to San Francisco (SFO).

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.

The late evening setting mood lighting near the end of a Virgin America flight from San Francisco (SFO) to Newark (EWR).

The late evening setting mood lighting midway through a Virgin America flight from San Francisco (SFO) to Newark (EWR).

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.

By our midnight arrival, Virgin's mood lighting had faded to a deep purple.

By our midnight arrival into EWR, Virgin’s mood lighting had faded to a deep purple.

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…

No-one holds a candle to these first class recliners. (Photo courtesy Virgin America).

No-one holds a candle to these first class recliners. (Photo courtesy Virgin America).

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).

Alaska's new first class seats will be somewhere between Virgin's plush recliners and Alaska's current squeeze.

Alaska’s new first class seats will be somewhere between Virgin’s plush recliners and Alaska’s current squeeze. (Photo courtesy Alaska Airlines)

The best coach seats in the sky…

So much cushion.

So much cushion.

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.

I had no problem with legroom in seat 18A.

I had no problem with legroom in seat 18A.

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…

Feeling peckish? Touch the screen. Watch food appear before your eyes.

Feeling peckish? Touch the screen. Watch food appear before your eyes.

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.

My protein plate emerged from the rear of the aircraft.

My protein plate emerged from the rear of the aircraft.

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…

VA's boarding passes are actually the right size.

VX’s boarding passes are actually the right size.

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.

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Comments

  1. Hi there,
    Thanks for the info.
    I have 2 flights on Virgin America first class in July and would like to know if there are already aircraft swaps between Virgin and Alaska. I’ve specifically booked Virgin to try their First class. I see that in 2018 the fleet will be merged but are you aware of it happening before that, in July already?
    Thanks.

    • Hi Hamada,
      If your flights are on longer, traditionally Virgin routes, like SFO or LAX to New York City airports, you should expect to be on a VX aircraft. For the shorter west coast routes, you may be more at risk.

      Alaska recently announced a number of new routes using the VX A320s. There is no definitive public timeline yet covering the conversion of the A320 fleet, and that certainly won’t begin anytime before July. Enjoy your flights!

      John

      • Thanks John,

        My flights will be from Chicago to Los Angeles and Los Angeles to Las Vegas.
        So hope they won’t be affected by any changes.

        • From everything I’ve seen, you should be in good shape. These are both traditionally Virgin routes an no route additions or modifications involving the A320 fleet will take place before August.

  2. Let’s ignore that the airline spent so much money on alm this that it consistently lost money almost every single year, which is what prompted the merger in the first place.

    Let’s also ignore Mint as if it doesn’t at all exist. Let’s ignore Delta One and United PS First class offerings too. Let’s ignore that Virgin’s interiors are used, abused and broken most if the time and that Virgin never planned for updates.

    • Appreciate your comment, George, but I’m not sure where you’re getting your information about the airline’s profitability. The airline was profitible every year since it went public (see: https://www.usatoday.com/story/todayinthesky/2014/08/13/virgin-america-posts-profit-as-it-readies-for-ipo/13994509/).

      I’m not sure who is ignoring Mint and other transcontinental flat bed products. They were mentioned in the article.

      Also, not sure what experience you’ve had with Virgin interiors (on any of their three subsidiary brands), but I’ve had dozens of flights on the three Branson-owned airlines and have never encountered a broken feature. That is a vastly better track record than just about every other airline I fly on.

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