Virgin America’s great First Class seating – and why BA short-haul will never match it

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Yesterday I looked at the Virgin America lounge at Los Angeles and showed you their impressive economy and premium economy short-haul product.

This is my review of my First Class flight on Virgin America.  Why First Class?  Because I thought it would be interesting – even though the flight from Los Angeles to Las Vegas is similar to a Heathrow to Amsterdam hop.

Let’s put the cost into context.  I paid $199 for a one-way First Class ticket, so around £130.  That is pretty much identical to what British Airways charges for half of a Club Europe return ticket as long as you stay away for a Saturday night.  Don’t try buying a one-way Club Europe ticket for that price because BA won’t sell you one.

Does this look like Club Europe to you?

Virgin America First Class 1 review

Virgin America First Class 2 review

Virgin America First Class 3 review

I apologise for the dark pictures but, as I mentioned in part 1 of this review yesterday, they insist on keeping the blinds down all the time!

The plane was full at take-off so I couldn’t easily take pictures of the reclined seats.  However, this is how they look:

Virgin America First Class reclined  review

There are only two rows of First Class meaning a total of eight seats in all.  Because the number of seats is fixed, there is a proper bulkhead between First Class and Main Cabin Select.

Unfortunately, because the flight time from Los Angeles to Las Vegas is pitifully short, it is difficult to say much about the Virgin America service in general.  They do serve what look like pretty decent meals on longer flights.  On my 50 minute hop, I was offered a choice of crisps or cookies from a basket.

I was offered a drink before take-off and I had another in the air.  The rest of the time was spent playing on my iPhone as I was able to buy 30 minutes of internet access for a whopping $3.

I didn’t even get the TV out to see what was available.  Or visit the loo.  Sorry about that!

I do hope you get a feeling from the pictures above, though, that this is very much a cut above your normal US or European short-haul carrier.

Can you redeem Virgin Atlantic miles on Virgin America?

Yes you can.  (And, indeed, you can earn Virgin Atlantic Flying Club miles on Virgin America as well.)

The snag – as with all Virgin Atlantic partners except Delta – is that you can only book return flights as redemptions.  As I was flying back to London on a direct flight from Las Vegas, this was no use to me.

The Virgin America redemption chart using Virgin Atlantic miles is here.  Assuming $400 for a return First Class between LA and Las Vegas, 20000-25000 miles (depending on which band it dropped into) looks like pretty good value.

Would British Airways ever go for seating like this in Club Europe?

No, it won’t.  But it does pose a big risk to BA if someone else tries it.

Virgin America is a point-to-point airline, like easyJet and Ryanair.  British Airways has a huge number of connecting passengers.  The ONLY reason that Club Europe still exists is that a lot of connecting passengers would abandon BA if they had to downgrade to economy for the European leg of their trip.

With a cabin like Virgin America, you are capped at 8 premium seats.  This would be a nightmare for British Airways.  If all eight seats were sold, someone looking to fly New York to, say, Hamburg would only be offered economy for the London-Hamburg leg.

It is very possible that such a flyer would decide not to give British Airways £4,000 and instead fly Lufthansa via Frankfurt – as long as Lufthansa had a business class seat for the last leg.

BA requires the flexibility to make Club Europe as large or as small as is necessary, and to be able to fit in extra passengers at short notice.

Let’s imagine, though, that easyJet decided to bring in seating like this.  It isn’t totally crazy – you take out 4 rows of 6 seats and replace it with 2 premium rows of 4 seats.  You would need to be able to sell them for 3x the price of a standard seat but that isn’t impossible.

I admit that easyJet would also have to upgrade its entire image and ‘look’ in order to make it work – the cabin also needs to feel classy and upmarket.  It might be possible though.

How would BA respond to that?  You now have Club Europe seats offering 30 inches of legroom in the refurbished planes.  These seats offer 55 inches of legroom.

What protects BA is its entrenched position at Heathrow which suits those who live in West London and those whose offices are within easy reach.  I’m not sure that corporate passengers would head out to Gatwick that easily even if they were promised a 55 inch seat pitch.  Virgin America shows that it is not impossible to run an impressive short-haul premium service in the 21st century – the key is whether anyone else responds.

(Want to earn more Virgin Flying Club miles?  Click here to see recent articles on Virgin Atlantic, Little Red and Flying Club, and click here for the latest news on earning and spending other airline and hotel points.)

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  1. I agree they are great to fly with – but haven’t they been consistently losing money for quite a long time? There was an interesting write up on them in 2012:

  2. I think in the US we have already seen some level of response in the transcon market, at least. Granted for short flights you might not even get a jet at times, but it has certainly raised the bar to some extend.

  3. Any thoughts as to why they didn’t follow this model with Little Red?

    • They weren’t allowed to. The rules governing usage of the slots meant they had to provide a minimum of the same number of sears that bmi provided.

      • bmi sometimes operated the Embrarer 145 on these routes (which only had about 40 seats) so are you sure this was the case?

        Although I do think those seats are certainly overkill for a domestic but it would have been nice to have extra legroom seats at the front.

        • I think bmi had more flights overall though.

          I had heard about bmi using Embraers on that route – didn’t realise they were so small.

          Hope Little Red make a success of it – their staff are great.

  4. Virgin America are just about profitable and so far are not making any impact on the big three.

  5. I am one of those who don’t live or work in BA’s catchment area and yes, BA is always the least convenient airline involving an increasingly lengthy layup in Heathrow to get anywhere. They exist to me purely because of Avios and the Reward Flight Saver fares in Club Europe. Usually however, I will opt for a more convenient ‘point to point’ airline.

    EasyJet are moving in the direction of offering a premium cabin. They already charge extra just for sitting ‘up front’ which comes with little benefit other than the guarantee of not having your hand luggage put in the hold. I have always been impressed with EasyJet from the days when they only flew from Luton. They were the only airline that automatically refunded your airfare if your flight was two hours late – over a decade before heavy-handed and off-the-mark EU compensation came in. The bar and food may be extra but the service cannot be faulted and comes with a regularity that puts any full-service or charter airline to shame. EasyJet also has always had the most generous hand luggage allowance in the industry – the largest 56x45x25 cm with no weight limit. The fact that they now also fly from my local airport direct to most of my regular destinations leaves BA strictly as a ‘leisure airline’ that I will only use when time is unimportant and I don’t mind killing time in the Galleries.

    in their current form, BA are extremely vulnerable to these newer, larger and more efficient airlines with much larger, established networks moving upmarket. If EasyJet introduced a premium product with a loyalty scheme I would imagine that BA would suffer rapid contraction into its new niche form of ‘West London Airways’ and then be bought by a rival for its name and its Heatrow slots.

    • People have been saying that for years. While the LCCs will continue to attack BAs short haul routes, I can’t see them collapsing any time soon.

      • If the “LCCs” offer a premium product, BA is dead in all but name.

        Having entirely committed their business model to the ‘hub’ (Heathrow), BA’s long haul services, which keep them in business, will be inconvenient for almost every potential customer – and, as they remove business class comfort to their local connections, they have little to offer other than a lengthy delay in Heathrow and poor comfort thereon. The synergy with Iberia is perfect. They will probably both go bust together.

  6. In Asia those seats are the norm; unless you fly SQ in which case more often than not you get a slopey flat bed (i think the last 772’s with recliners are gone now.) CX is often a lottery of regional recliners and full long haul business. Even tiny Bangkok Airways has 2×2 business class recliner seats on some of their planes.

    Across all airlines Eurobusiness class is a disgrace doesn’t allow for any actual work to take place. You don’t have to sell 2×2 as business; Start a FirstEurope of 2×2 recliners and CCR access (ala Qatar First around ME) and move ClubEurope back down the plane and keep the seating as it is currently behind the First seats.

    That way people who need to work on their 2 hour flight can; and people who like legroom can get it …

  7. Flew Virgin first SFO-LAS in May and was equally impressed. Was only $40 more expensive to fly first, and as I needed a checked bag anyway (included in first, $25 in main cabin) would have been silly not to, even for such a short flight! Was certainly hard to fly main cabin for the LAS-JFK leg a few days later after flying first, but couldn’t justify first at around 5x the cost of main cabin on the longer route.

  8. Excellent review Rob.

    • In retrospect, the lack of a toilet photo annoys me 🙂 A lot of bloggers are obsessed with getting a toilet show into their reviews.

      Advanced warning that my BA A380 F review also has no toilet photographs.

      • Flying BA F on the A380 tomorrow. I can take some if you like. 😉

        Of course the upper deck J passengers get the most spacious loos, so I’m tempted to duck under the rope, up the stairs and use those to change into my PJs…..

      • Do any airlines have better toilets in first/business? My experience with BA first was that the toilet was exactly the same as in economy, save for a miserable bunch of flowers and better hand soap. The toilet was as small as the ones in economy which surprised me as it was the only place to get changed. Did I just get unlucky?

        • Lady London says:

          SQ. Their toilets have expanded very nicely in size and amenities according to class whenever I’ve been on their aircraft. Both the older aircraft and A380’s.

        • I suggest you Google the bathroom / shower room on the A380 for Emirates First Class. I have lived in places with smaller bathrooms.

        • Not to my knowledge, apart from the two forward upper deck spaces on the A380 which Emirates use for their F showers and are just big toilets with other carriers. These are quite spacious, but for BA and any other carrier that has F on the main deck are predominantly used by J passengers.

          This is very much the exception since these spaces are not otherwise useful for passenger seating (no windows and relatively narrow). Otherwise it is usually minimum required number and size.

        • Thanks all. Ignorance was my problem then – I should have headed upstairs to use the larger toilet there. Or, move east so I can start collecting airmiles for Emirates/Singapore!

  9. As another route, Virgin Australia and SQ have announced you will be able to swap points between their programmes from November, which is novel (though technically you need an Oceania address to join VA’ Velocity). So you’ll be able use Amex MR on VX via this route: J flights up to 600mi are 13,800 VA/SQ/MR points, then 21,800 to 1200mi.

    I have a VA trans-Tasman booking which I used SQ/MR points for before this upcoming change. 27k one-way not great value but it is PE (which is their very honest name for basically BA’s CE: better pitch, blocked middle seat, lounge, better food) on the first Saturday of January, a sold-out flight. But even trans-Tasman they are swapping PE for a VX-like J product next year.

  10. In principle of course there is nothing to stop BA putting in a couple of rows of such seats and selling them as F with CE behind to keep connecting J passengers happy. I doubt they will though.

  11. Lady London says:

    Wondering how this compares to JetBlue. The Americans I have spoken to always seem to speak of JetBlue with enthusiasm.

  12. Thywillbedone says:

    I flew them a couple of weeks ago and was a little underwhelmed. Ok, it is far superior to Club Europe and maybe my expectations were overly high but (1) the seats were a little dirty (white being hard to keep clean), (2) the snacks were almost inedible, (3) the pre take-off drink was undrinkable and made my long for BA Highsick. In addition, we were charged $50 for a bag weighing about 3kg more than 23kg – this was down to my ignorance I accept. Finally, I thought that there would be access to a lounge as a first class ticket (there wasn’t) – the VA website is confusing in this regard in my opinion. We flew from SFO to Las Vegas and in hindsight, I wouldn’t bother paying the extra $200 for two people for such a short flight (55 mins). If you want full legroom reserve a seat in row 2 as there is a cabin divider at row 1 which prevents full stretch.

  13. Low cost-ish Fly Dubai have introduced something similar on some of their routes – be interesting to see how this performs. Their economy class product is pretty good for short haul (seatback TV etc.)

  14. @HfP,
    “Or visit the loo.” The titans of BA always include a shiny toilet bowl picture in their reviews. I was hoping you’ld pick that up at the conference. By the way. it’s called restroom, cause that’s what I do there. Especially at work.

    • gnarlyoldgoatdude says:

      I only ever visit aircraft loos if I’m on baby-change duty.
      Anything else can wait…even on long haul.
      Just make sure that visiting the loo on the ground is one of the last things you do before (premium) boarding.

  15. Way OT but I need a little help with a time sensitive issue. I booked a flight at 3am this morning on BA and the price has come down (something I’ve never seen before). Will BA match the lower price or do I need to cancel and rebook? Thanks

  16. How much are the taxes and charges on virgin america on a redemtion, for example on a coast to coast flight. Do they vary with class of seat?

  17. Guesswho2000 says:

    OT, but just had an email from Redspottedhanky – they’re introducing a booking fee of £1 and delivery charge for postal delivery.

    Can’t say I’m surprised, given how much £ they give away each year! Oh well, £1 of my free vouchers each time will go on their fee, and I’ll collect the tickets at the station from now on!

  18. We flew San Francisco to Las Vegas in first with Virgin America as it was cheaper to fly first then economy and had a great experience! VA found a fault with the plane after we had boarded and quickly found a replacement for the flight. Our silver lining was that we got to see Air Force Once land at SFO due to the delay. I wished BA had designed their business section like VA as it was a great way to travel!

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