Transcon Premium Cabin Throwdown: Virgin America First Class

Lastly, we profile Virgin America’s transcon service. The airline with arguably the nicest first class on most domestic routes. How does it stack up against the premium offerings on JFK-SFO and JFK-LAX?

  • Introduction: Scoring and Considerations
  • United Airlines p.s. (757)
  • Delta One (757)
  • AA Business Class (A321T)
  • AA Flagship First (A321T)
  • JetBlue Mint (A321T)
  • Virgin America (A320)
  • Results and Summary

Hard Product

Virgin America has eight recliner seats in first class onboard its A320s, arranged in two rows with a 2-2 configuration. While a better pitch than a vast majority of domestic first class offerings, it actually lags significantly when compared to the fully lie-flat seats offered on the premium transcon routes. Most of the other carrier seats offer ample storage and a multitude of seat recline settings, Virgin’s seem a bit dated compared to what’s out there.

Virgin First Seat

Image: Virgin America

Like the rest of the fleet, the cabin has a very disco-friendly interior, with lots of purple and pink, white leather and downtempo house boarding music, which some people will love and others will hate. Lavatory ratio is eight passengers to one, tied for best with with Delta 757s and JetBlue.

Soft Product

Virgin is known for having great food and drink options and they don’t disappoint here. The food tastes particularly fresh, which the drink menus are very inventive — actual cocktail suggestions and pairings go beyond the standard “blank and blank …oh wait, we don’t have mixers” that is common on many airlines.

The service itself is also above average, with typically friendly and fun crew (though they may gossip a bit more than average) and the on-demand ordering system takes a lot of passenger panic out of the equation. No waiting for a flight attendant to pass through, just order another scotch on your screen.

The snack items are also quite comprehensive and complimentary with gourmet sweets, nuts, jerky and many other items and the wines are solid, but probably won’t blow you away.

On the amenity front, no kit is offered and the bedding is a simple pillow and red blanket that has a tendency to leave red threads all over your clothes. Some work could be done here, and it would be a quick fix.

Ground Experience

Virgin has a pretty nice check in experience at all three airports and the gate areas around SFO’s Terminal 2 are about as nice as they get. LAX could use a little love since, like JetBlue, Virgin also uses the low cost carrier Terminal 3. JFK is a pretty enjoyable experience as Virgin departs from Terminal 4, like Delta.

VX SFO check in

Virgin America check-in SFO — swank and organized.

Sadly, the lounge options are a bit lacking, with Virgin America’s only lounge — the Loft — available only to full fare first class long haul passengers (C, D and J fare classes), those with status (you get a few days passes), or those that pony up $40 for entry. Ironically the Loft is also a Priority Pass and Lounge Club member, so a few AMEX and Chase credits cards may also grant you access through their partner programs. It is fairly nice, and a welcome respite from LAX Terminal 3 with a wider selection of cocktails and food options than your typical Sky Club or United Club and great tarmac views

VS Clubhouse JFK dining

The Virgin Atlantic Clubhouse JFK — only a whopping $75 to access!

VS Clubhouse JFK

Virgin Atlantic Clubhouse at JFK.

Virgin Clubhouse SFO 2

Virgin Atlantic Clubhouse at SFO. It was designed to look like a kaleidoscope.

Virgin Clubhouse SFO

Virgin Atlantic Clubhouse at SFO. $40 for Virgin America passengers, but it’s only open for one of the transcon flights.

At SFO and JFK, Virgin America lets passengers use the Virgin Atlantic Clubhouse at each airport, but they must pay:$40 at SFO (where the hours are very odd and it’s in a different terminal) or a whopping $75 at JFK (same terminal, arguably a very nice lounge, but probably only worth it if you have a full meal, get a spa treatment and drink like a fish). In short, the offerings could be better.


Virgin’s entire fleet has had WiFi from the get go, but it also means it has a fairly early generation of GoGo in-flight Internet and a passenger demographic trained to use it, yielding an excruciatingly slow experience. It might be time for an upgrade.

Virgin does excel at generally having great movies and music on its inflight entertainment and very good controls, though the screens in first class are smaller than competing products (9” instead of 15-15.4”), and the headphones are cheap plastic and not terribly nice.

Fleet and Operations

Virgin has a smaller fleet compared to the legacies flying four flights each to SFO and LAX out of JFK, which may pose issues if you have to get out at a certain time. With only eight seats per aircraft, they are more likely to sell out, though tickets can be reasonably priced if purchased far in advance. Due to it’s revenue-based loyalty program, it’s only feasible to redeem Singapore or Virgin Atlantic miles for travel on Virgin America.

Virgin is also tied with Delta for the best time arrival record of any of the carriers flying these routes, with a blended average of 80%.

Overall Impressions

While I really like to fly Virgin America around the West Coast and think it has a great First Class product when compared to domestic first in general, it seriously lags behind on the premium transcon routes in both hard product, ground experience, seat availability. I would only recommend flying if you overemphasize the importance of food and service, value on-time arrivals, and enjoy the disco ethos of the airline.

5 Responses to “Transcon Premium Cabin Throwdown: Virgin America First Class”

  1. How tall does one have to be to be able to use the little footrest at the base of the seat? Whenever I have one of those my legs are always way too long to use it appropriately. My guess is that even someone who was 5’8″ would still be too tall for it. Anybody have an idea of what inseam length would fit best? I always wish they went out further.

    • I’m about 6′ even and I always find the footrest concept really awkward. You often find them on really slanted angle-flat seats, which makes them very hard to sleep.

  2. Not sure how Virgin America is even able to compete, quite frankly. Their product is miles behind the other carriers on this route. Add that to the lack of a good mileage program, and a lack of alliance membership, and there is really no compelling reason to fly transcon with Virgin in first. Economy is a different story, however…

    • Virgin America has caché in the tech world and a lot of people pay extra to fly them. I personally don’t get it, but it seems to work for them. They compete on coolness.

      • Yes, they have a great domestic economy product and their first class is fantastic on most other routes (the pitch is huge), but they do fall short on the transcons, since everyone else has lie flat seats.

        I wouldn’t entirely discount the mileage program, as there are some good uses on singapore and the other virgin airlines, but nowhere the advantage that an alliance or robust partner network like Alaska brings. I consider it a tool among many. Status with Virgin is pretty cool, as they do soft landings and it’s often pretty easy to get upgrades to MCS.

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