The Only Nice Domestic First Class Product is Being Eliminated

Alaska Airlines, which acquired Virgin America, is going to be killing Virgin’s premium cabin product in 2019. That’s really sad.

When talking about degrading the passenger experience by offering Basic Economy fares, US airline executives talk about ‘allowing customers to buy exactly the product they want’ — except they really do not do this, because Delta, American, and United do not offer a product that is as comfortable as Virgin America’s for customers to buy.

The first class seats have foot rests and plenty of legroom. There’s no climbing over a seat opponent. You simply walk in the space between rows in and out of the window seat.

I know that some people complain about seats showing their wear. I’d still take this product over an American, Delta, or United non-premium transcon seat any and every day of the week and I’d happily pay revenue premium for it.

What’s more, the food they serve actually tastes good (and that’s in spite of any cutbacks). Here’s a pesto pasta that was delicious. The snack basket is quality too.

I can really only fly Virgin America Austin – San Francisco and to a handful of beyond markets from my home town but if I lived in San Francisco I’d have been a regular customer whenever their route network allowed.

Like on Southwest I’ve found Virgin America flight attendants to be really friendly. On my recent flight the internet worked for just a moment as we ascended, then the signal turned off. I mentioned this to a flight attendant. It turns out she already knew and indeed they were in the process of resetting it yet she thanked me for telling her, and she checked back with me to make sure I was connecting once Gogo had been reset. More broadly crew even appear to be enjoying their jobs!

Sadly not enough people pay for the product to cover the real estate it takes up on the aircraft, ithough I still think there’s more of a premium market on three-plus hour flights than is currently being exploited.

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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  1. Well, it looks like a nice product, but I think you’re missing the point.

    People vote with their feet and wallets everyday day. An airline such as Spirit is successful. I’ve never flown with them, and you may not prefer the experience, but many others partake. Why? Because it gives them what they want at a perceived value.

    I suspect that if a large segment of air passengers cared more about the flying experience than just getting safely from point A to point B, then Virgin would have been a successful venture. It turned out not to be for a reason.

    Not enough people saw the reason to indulge in the revenue premium for a niche product. Airline executives see this. Time will tell if Basic Economy proves to be successful or not.

  2. So they will not offer any level of unique product on JFK-SFO/LAX after 2019 to compete with everyone else?

  3. Gary, I don’t know if you have flown in AS new FC configuration but it’s got ROOM ! Virgin was a greta product in it’s time but lack of upkeep ( i.e. money) has left many of those birds a little long in the tooth.

    Having said that I do agree it was the only real First Class experience domestic.

    Question. Now that Dick Anderson is running Amtrak do you think he will blame the ME3 on his train woes ?

  4. Personally I have trouble digesting pesto (I suspect many do) so that meal is completely unappealing. Almost as bad as the pathetic cheeseburgers that CO fans used to love. That’s one thing I like about US legacy carriers, is the bland food.

    As for the seats, meh, footrests are useless to me. In fact you could say that legacy carriers offer a better product because they generally have >8 F seats on most mainline flights – up to 24 on 757s for example. That means more upgrade opportunities and probably lower buy-up prices. I don’t know about Austin but the prices for VX F from SFO are usually outrageous. I’d rather have access to a slightly lesser product than an overpriced one (like EK’s suites) that I will never see.

    Now to be fair there are many things to like about the VX Y & F products. But apparently only B6 has seen fit to copy…

  5. @Bruno @Mr. Incognito — “domestic first class” doesn’t mean premium first class flying domestically, eg the very best first class inside the US is American Airlines A321T 3-cabin first, better than Mint IMHO. But the whole idea is it’s a limited-route offering, not the standard product across the airline’s domestic network.

  6. @Ghostrider5408 — I have, and I found it relatively comfortable, no foot rests though 🙂 As for Anderson no doubt road subsidies to Greyhound will need to be matched with ever-greater subsidies for Amtrak.

  7. @Gary —> I agree with you on all counts. As a VX Gold elite, I’m certainly going to miss their FC once AS guts/destroys/ruins/eliminates it — which I fly relatively frequently (about 1/3 of my 110+ flights on VX have been in First — with roughly half of those on paid flights, half on points).

    I think — by and large — AS has done a very good job making “us” (VX regulars) feel “welcome.” This is one of only two ways I think AS has “blown it” with VX loyalists. The other way is increasing the number of flight segments required for elite status — strictly from a VX point-of-view — from 15 and 30 for Silver and Gold respectively, to 30 and 60 for MVP and MVP Gold, respectively (and 90 for their third and highest level, MVP Gold 75k).


    @Ron —> Actually, I think you may be missing the point(s). It certainly sounds as if you’ve never flown Virgin America, or at least not flown their FC product. VX was certainly not a commercial failure at the time of their sale. Both JetBlue and Alaska wanted to purchase them, and if it was such a failure, they (and others) would have waited for bankruptcy to make it available on the cheap. The fact that VX was successful, and had such a local following (as well as an attractive network) is what make it the subject of a bidding war, and made AS pay what many think was a significant premium.

    On many routes, VX is less expensive than the legacy carriers (e.g.: SFO-LAX, SFO-LAS, SFO-SEA), and on par to Southwest¹.

    On a purely anecdotal basis, I personally know far more people who have flown Spirit one and swore “Never again!” than people who have flown Virgin once and felt the same way. YMMV.
    ¹ In some cases, the fares are identical; in others, perhaps $10 more. This is *before* baggage fees, but as a VX Gold elite, I have 3 bags checked free; my wife, VX Silver elite, has one. The level of service — even in Economy — is far superior to WN. Their IFE is excellent; food is among the best I’ve ever had on a domestic flight; and as Gary said above, the in-flight crew is always friendly and attentive. It’s certainly worth a $10 premium to me, and if the fares are identical? So much the better!

  8. @Boraxo —> “That’s one thing I like about US legacy carriers, is the bland food.”

    REALLY? Wow . . . and I thought legacy carriers were exactly the reason so many airports have places that sell food you can take with you on the plane! Different strokes . . .

  9. @Jason:

    “Let’s eliminate a successful product for a worse one that won’t make us as much money!”

    – said no airline ever

    The truth is that for markets like SEA-SFO or LAX-LAS 60 inch pitch when you are in the air two hours or less is WAY overkill, but Virgin America has to fly those seats in those markets. Gary’s point still stands about how it doesn’t pay for itself. Alaska wouldn’t be “destroying” something that had the potential to make them more money than standard domestic F.

    (Heck, in Europe, most airlines don’t even think 2×2 40 inch pitch works, and they stuff you into empty middle coach with better food and drinks…)

  10. And I, too, never said it. (Please don’t put words in my mouth.) I have no doubt that AS took a look at the economics of the situation and said “Let’s make the Airbus 320s more like our 737s (i.e.: 12/16 FC seats, versus 8)” rather than the other way around. However, there were also posts both here and on TPG (IIRC) where “the powers that be” at Alaska specifically stated they understood they the importance of offering FC upgrades to elites as an important tool for retaining loyalty, as opposed to selling all their seats in the FC cabin (which they stated they didn’t necessarily expect to do).

    In terms of pitch, I’ve long thought that lie-flat seats on daylight flights were a waste . . . and I have little doubt that I’ll be perfectly comfortable in a seat with 36″ of pitch, though I also have little doubt that I’ll miss those extra 19″.

    As for flying in Europe, Business Class is the most unfunny joke imaginable! (Food and drink is another story, but then I’ve never been disappointed by the food on VX, either.)

  11. I flew both AA F and VX F this weekend, and it wasn’t hard to realize that VX had (and always had) the superior F product.

    As a VX Gold member, I’ve had my share of miles flying VX and never understood why others make little criticisms against its First Class seats. I’m going to miss VX when they’re gone.

  12. Jet Blue Mint is the premium product in the domestic market – lie flat seats and available only on coast-to-coast routes. The fares are lower than VX first class.

  13. We will also miss VX F. Even on a rather short flight SEA-LAX, there are always 2 choices of meal available. Because F is paid rather than upgrades, the product is reflects this.
    AS treats all F as “free upgrades” and the product (food) reflects that. We are paid F and are treated accordingly on VX. Not so much on AS. Having status on AS helps in dealing with CS.
    We will enjoy F on VX as long as it is available. But, sad day when it is gone.

  14. Gary you’re splitting hairs over JetBlue Mint. Also, you may be alone in your assessment of AA first class being better than Mint.

  15. So sad watching VX being disassembled! I love everything about their experience and if they flew more places, they would be my go to every time!

  16. First, referring to VX F as ” the only domestic First Class” is extremely misleading IMO. AA FF on the A321T and all B6 Mint and most DL One also qualify. I personally prefer Mint, especially since it is available and consistent across many routes, unlike AA FF for LAX-JFK only.

    Second, no one is surprised that the old, banged up VX F seats are being removed and replaced with the more consisten AS F product. It is far economical and for more sensical with the scale involved. VX hadn’t put any investment to replace and improve VX F, either. So no one should have expected AS to do any differently.

  17. I flew VX from JFK to LAS Monday, in coach, not F. I don’t get what the Virgin loyalists are all up in arms about. I have to pay for a decent seat (not sure if Virgin elites get that free), the flight attendants were blase at best and trying to be cool to me came across as snarky. One beverage cart on a five hour flight (yes I know you can buy on the screen). The sound on the Virgin Red player required me to hold my headset in the armrest the whole time and I have to pay for anything other than direct tv or Big Bang Theory (everything is free on Alaska now). Basically I see I get pink mood lighting… I will take the relatively fuddy duddy Alaska folksy charm that has well maintained planes and staff that is not snarky…

  18. You’ve also missed Hawaiian Airlines first class which, in many cases, includes flat beds. Hawaii is a state which apparently many Americans don’t understand (I am talking to you Jeff Sessions) and their flights are also domestic.

  19. What a silly post. Your opening premise is that airlines aren’t really offering customers what they want because all airlines don’t offer a first class like Virgin’s.

    Then you end by saying not enough people were willing to pay for it. Kinda disproves your opening premise, doesn’t it.

    The VX product is going away because not enough customers wanted it.

  20. @Flyin’ Hawaiian —> In what is clearly a case of YMMV, it’s just say I’m *not* a fan. Their inter-island B717s are fine, I suppose, but the flight is so short, one barely has a chance to finish a glass of water, let alone a cocktail. Living in the SF Bay Area, every flight I’ve ever taken on Hawaiian between California and Hawai’i has been on one of their 767s with recliner seats. Speaking personally, I’d much rather fly VX FC (until it disappears) or even AS FC than Hawaiian 767s.

    (NOTE: with recent schedule changes, HA has started to fly 330s out of OAK, it once again becomes a possibility . . . )

  21. @Mark —> You wrote (in part), “I flew VX from JFK to LAS Monday, in coach, not F. I don’t get what the Virgin loyalists are all up in arms about.” a) Main Cabin isn’t First Class, so — no — you don’t get it.

    “I have to pay for a decent seat (not sure if Virgin elites get that free)…” I get automatic upgrades from Main Cabin to MCS; but not to FC. On AS, I can get free upgrades to FC.

    “[T]he flight attendants were blase at best and trying to be cool to me came across as snarky.” Perception is everything, and — for you — they came off as “snarky.” Never experienced that, but I don’t deny that you did.

    “One beverage cart on a five hour flight (yes I know you can buy on the screen).” That would be NORMAL, not a flaw, PRECISELY because you *can* order directly on the screen. They specifically say, “…otherwise we’ll stay out of your way.”

    “The sound on the Virgin Red player required me to hold my headset in the armrest the whole time and I have to pay for anything other than direct tv or Big Bang Theory (everything is free on Alaska now).” I can’t tell you — nor would I try — that there are never any maintenance issues, but did you tell someone about the faulty headset connection? or just kept quiet so the next passenger will experience the same problem and Maintenance will never know there’s a problem to fix? In my experience, problems with seats/IFE get worked on relatively quickly. In terms of paying for IFE in a (regular) Main Cabin seat, all the channels of DirectTV are free (not just the endless episodes of BBT), all the music is free; so, too, the games and seat-to-seat chat. IIRC, most (perhaps all) movies are available for a fee, but who has time to watch them? (Yes, you were on a trans-con flight, but most of their flights are significantly shorter.) So, too, are all non-alcoholic beverages, in the FWIW mode.

    However, since we’re really talking here about FC, I’ll point out that all food and drink on VX (except premium alcohol) is free in FC and MCS. So, too, is everything offered through the IFE.

    “Basically I see I get pink mood lighting… I will take the relatively fuddy duddy Alaska folksy charm that has well maintained planes and staff that is not snarky…” In so far as I can tell, AS doesn’t fly JFK-LAS. At least not unless you want to route your flight through SEA or PDX. I would presume you’d still be on an (ex-VX) Alaska Airbus 320 on that route for the foreseeable future, though I presume at some point, probably as the leases expire, the A320s will be replaces with 737s.

    Ah well . . . as always, just my 2¢, probably worth far less (keep the change), and YMMV.

  22. @Steve — I’ll be flying Mint later this year (JFK-SFO), so I don’t (yet) have my own personal opinion as to the quality of Mint, other than to say I’ve heard nothing but excellent things about it.

    That said — and certainly you can disagree — but I’m not sure Gary’s splitting hairs: Mint is only available on a few select flights within B6’s overall schedule. That may not make a difference to anyone, but I think Gary’s point is that VX’s FC service was available on each and every flight — be it SFO-LAX, SFO-AUS, or SFO-JFK. And to me, flying FC between OAK-LGB on B6 was disappointing, compared to VX between SFO-LAX. YMMV.

  23. Alaska’s First Class isn’t TERRIBLE. At least the food is good. #firstworldproblems much?

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