My First Impressions of Virgin America

Cabin with mood lighting - Virgin America

Cabin with mood lighting – Virgin America

Virgin America is a relatively new airline. They gets high praise from a number of people I know as well as in the official airline rankings. They were recently ranked the best domestic airline in the United States. How does it compare with American Airlines, which ranks towards the bottom of these same airline rankings?

I took my first Virgin America flight a couple of days ago, from Austin to San Francisco. The most striking feature is the mood lighting and the club like atmosphere. Imagine a trendy W Hotel mated with an airplane — soft blue and purple LED lights contrasting with glossy white seat backs. The black leather seats adds the final touch to something unexpected in a commercial airline. It’s a far cry from the dingy blue-gray interior with yellow lighting at United Airlines.

The second, absolutely hilarious feature, is the mandatory safety demonstration video — which are usually, totally boring, as you probably know. You got to watch the YouTube video below. Kudos to Virgin America for doing something different and entertaining.


All seats have a built-in entertainment system with glossy, Star Wars Storm Trooper like, white. You get free cable channels but the movies cost money. There is an interesting and decently executed user interface where you can order food and drinks. But this is where all the niceties stop.

You look past the strikingly different interior and the catchy safety video and you see only thinly veiled differences. The flight attendants, who appear perhaps a bit more hip and young compared to their American Airlines counterparts, don’t seem any more helpful or friendly. The sandwich was a bit tastier but generally the same as the American counterpart. See below.

A Sandwich for Dinner - Virgin America

Where is the catchy packaging and branding? My sandwich looks as appetizing as any other airline meal. It looks like it was supplied by the same institutional food vendors. A little bit of effort in this area could have made a big difference.

Boarding Pass - Virgin America

Notice the generic looking airplane boarding card. The same low-res and confusing document you get from any other airline. A company truly thinking out of the box might have done this. And that’s the thing. Beyond the snazzy plane interior there doesn’t seem to be much that really separates Virgin from the other carrier. Sure the plane looks new because it is new. Scratch beneath the surface and you see lots of ordinary stuff, not even disguised with superficial graphics and design.

Red System - Virgin America

The movies, $8 a pop. Internet, yup that’s extra too. At least on American, I can get a free movie with some NBC comedy skits thrown in. That neat looking entertainment interface? Truly annoying. The touch screen is so unresponsive that I was ready to give up. Except I couldn’t because I needed to use it to order my food. When the flight attendant came through with the free drinks, I couldn’t verbally order my food. She insisted, a bit rudely I might add, that I need to use that lame interface. In the era of responsive multi-touch iPads from Apple, that Red Entertainment system is a cruel joke.

Sure they have catchy pop music playing from tiny computer speakers at the check-in counter but is that it?

I’m probably being too harsh. I do appreciate a company that tries to break out of the typical industry mold. Airline travel lost its glamor a long time ago. This is no longer the era of Pan Am in the 60s. And perhaps no matter what an airline does, the realities of security screenings have sucked the fun out of jet-setting.

As you may know from my past postings, I tend to travel on American. For that reason, I luckily have some “status” which enables me to board a bit earlier and I get to bypass the bulk of the security lines. Nothing too special. It just gets me to the level of service that everyone got back in the 90s. I was hoping, maybe unfairly, that I would be so enamored with Virgin America that I would choose them over my default. Indeed a direct flight from Austin to San Francisco is very convenient. But alas that might not be enough to ultimately change my mind, or my airline.


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9 thoughts on “My First Impressions of Virgin America

  1. You’re absolutely right. Flying stopped being fun years ago, but now? If I can’t drive, I don’t go. I can’t put myself through an airport. I was bad at that stuff 30 years ago … now it might actually kill.

    You really have to order through an automated system? How tacky!

    1. The automated system looks nice and has a decent user interface. Too bad it has such an unresponsive touch interface.

      There is advantage to ordering from the screen. They can bring you stuff even when the flight attendants are not around. Somehow, I don’t like hitting the Flight Attendant button.

  2. Interesting… I’ve flown with Cathay Pacific a few months ago, it’s Hong Kong’s flag carrier airline. I must say I was quite impressed with the service, the food and the on-board entertainment. All personnel was extremely friendly and smiling so much, it must’ve hurt afterwards. Maybe it’s a cultural difference. The food was very nice, even better than some on-the-ground-food in HK I dare to say. The entertainment on the long flight (AMS-HKG) was awesome: all the latest movies and series on demand, all free. The screen was just as well somewhat unresponsive but the chairs included an embedded pull-out remote control which allows you to navigate with arrow keys. There was no ordering through that system, they just pulled up a cart when it was time to eat (breakfast at 4am, delicious!) giving us the choice between two meals.
    Oh and I have something to brag about: I played solitaire at an altitude of 14.000m and I won!

    All the good stuff aside, sitting cramped up in plane for 13 hours will never be ‘fun’ in economy class.

    1. TImmy, the Asian airlines like Cathy and Singapore Air as well as Emirates are a different class, especially for international flights. They are much better than the U.S. airlines. But even the U.S. Airlines are better when traveling internationally. Domestic travel is very different.

  3. VA is my fave domestic airline IMHO – and frequently ranked #1 in most customer rankings while AA falls short…

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