First Class transcon flight comparison – Virgin America vs. American Airlines
I generally tend to book all of my travel on two airlines – American Airlines and Delta. I am one who, you could say, has been successfully lured by their frequent flier programs – where not only do you build miles that can be redeemed for a great value on international business class travel, but also gain certain benefits when you travel with that one airline (including other airlines in their alliance) 25,000 or more miles in a calendar year. I try to maintain status in at least one program a year to enjoy the perks – 1st class check-in, no baggage fees, and complimentary upgrades to first class when available. But does this make for the best air travel experience?
I wanted to find out. My travels took me to Las Vegas this Labor Day weekend and I decided it was time to choose an airline that appeared to not only be new, but fresh and full of amenities one-way and take one of the legacy carriers home. New York to Las Vegas is a 5 hour flight – nearly as far as Los Angeles and as such, I would expect a transcontinental flight in 1st class to provide certain comforts on par with international travel. After all, this is nearly as far a flight as New York to London.
For the outbound New York to Las Vegas leg of my trip, I chose Virgin America. As my flight was on a business day, I really liked the idea of in-flight WiFi. It allowed me to work nearly the whole day while in-flight and ready to start my vacation when I landed. It also made time absolutely fly by. Compared to past transcon flights, this flight on Virgin America easily passed faster than any I’ve ever been on. But Virgin offers way more than WiFi on every plane. They offer an experience.
As you can see, this seat is probably unlike any you’ve seen on an American airline flying a domestic route. Indeed, the seat in 1st was just like many airlines International Business class seat. It was wide, comfortable and offered a wide array of positions all the way to a large recline for sleeping.
The in-flight entertainment also reminded me of an international flight. There was a huge range of movies, music, and even satellite TV. Food was another hit. While in First you appear to be limited to the First Class menu, you can actually order anything they have in coach for free. On my flight – a morning flight – I had a nice brushchetta with proscuitto, salsa, eggs, and an olive tapenade. It wasn’t restaurant amazing, but it was great for a domestic airline. The one disappointment in the food area was that I could not access RED – the online food system – to see exactly what they had in coach. In coach they use this system to order and it’d be fairly easy to allow 1st Class passengers to see it. They didn’t even have a printed menu for the First Class cabin food – and I think a menu is always a nice touch in a premium cabin.
The Flight Attendant was fun and friendly and certainly eager to please. She seemed to actually enjoy her job!
Overall, I’d give the Virgin Flight a solid A. If I had the option to earn miles on a US based alliance, I’d be far more likely to be a true convert, but I can honestly say that I’m questioning my legacy-carrier loyalty.
On to the American Airlines flight back. As you can see, this seat looks *nothing* like the one on Virgin America. In fact, this plane appeared to be from the 1970s. As far as the seat goes, it’s not just the new vs. old look. Seat pitch (the recline) on Virgin is 55 inches with a 21 inch width. The AA flight in First had a seat pitch of 39 inches and the same width of 21 inches. A 16″ difference in recline is pretty huge!
No question – this seat on American was far less comfortable. In flight entertainment was limited to a movie and a few NBC shows on the ancient overhead monitor. The power port only works if you have a special DC adapter you’ve purchased before the flight (you can’t just plug your power cord in like you can on Virgin). And the food – a breakfast egg and
cheese quesadilla with a side of some kind of sausage was edible but not of the same caliber at all.
Happily, the flight attendants on American were very friendly and eager to please. I dozed off right after takeoff and missed breakfast but they were quick to come over when I woke to offer me my breakfast. Service couldn’t be faulted.
American does not yet offer WiFi on this route so that was out as a way to pass the time.
Overall: Given that the prices in 1st on American and Virgin are similar, it’s really no comparison. The only thing American came close on was service, although I know from experience that is often luck of the draw – and even that was pretty much a draw and not a win for American. The food, entertainment, seat, Internet availability, and overall feel of the plane went to Virgin America no-contest. Sure, you can’t earn AAdvantage miles on Virgin, but the flight is so much more enjoyable. The only other potential downside to Virgin would be their limited network. If a flight was canceled for mechanical reasons (and JFK-LAS runs only once a day) I’m not sure how easily you can be rerouted or if they’d just cancel and refund your money leaving you scrambling whereas AA has a vast network to reroute you on in that event.
American Airlines, and for that matter all US based airlines, really need to step up the service offerings – especially in premium cabins – if they want to compete with airlines like Jet Blue and Virgin America as they grow bigger and pose more of a threat to their most profitable routes.