The A319 “Virgin & Tonic” at DAL getting ready to depart to New York’s LaGuardia Airport
My wife and I typically haven’t done much of anything for Valentine’s Day, but a few weeks prior to the big day, Prita started hinting that she’d like to do something this year. It just so happened that Love Field’s newest tenant, Virgin America, had just sent me an e-mail a couple days prior advertising yet another fare war with their arch-rival Southwest. While I’ve been critical of VX’s disjointed, questionably successful strategy at Love Field so far, they provided an excellent in-air product in Main Cabin Select back in December, and I was eager to try out regular Main Cabin to better evaluate the MCS value proposition. New York and Washington seemed too risky for a weekend getaway in February, and we’ve been to LA more times than we can count, so San Francisco seemed like the best bet. And really, what better place to celebrate Cupid’s day than the beautiful City by the Bay, flying in from Love FIeld, no less? For $268 all-in round trip, plus an additional 10% cash back via BOA’s Bank AmeriDeals program, it was a no brainer.
Virgin America (VX) Flight 713
- February 14, 2015
- Depart: Dallas Love Field (DAL) Gate 11, 09:51, 9m early
- Arrive: San Francisco International (SFO) Gate 54B, 11:31, 19m early
- Main Cabin, Seats 5A, 5B
- Equipment: Airbus A320
One of the big advantages of flying Saturday morning is that the freeways and the airports are typically empty, and today was no exception. We left home right at 8:00, and pulled in to Love Field Garage B a mere 35 minutes later (add 15-25 minutes to that on a weekday). We did start off with a bit of comic relief, as the boarding pass checker at the DAL security checkpoint wasn’t familiar with Virgin America boarding passes printed at home, and kept insisting that “For the TSA” meant “PreCheck”. Now, I know full well that neither my wife nor I have PreCheck, but she insisted that we head to the PreCheck line. Sure enough, we were turned away, and we got one puzzled look in response when we came back to the regular line. Anyway, the line was very short, and we were through in 5 minutes or so. Virgin operates just two gates at DAL, Gates 11 and 13, but we headed over to Starbucks by Gate 6 first with the intention of grabbing some bagels and cream cheese. After standing in what had to be the slowest moving Starbucks line in the history of mankind, we place our order and discover…they have no cream cheese. Ugh. I can’t eat a bagel without cream cheese, so we both got something else instead, then moseyed over to Gate 11 with about 5 minutes or so to spare before boarding. It was only then that I realized there was a Starbucks right there at Gate 11. Double ugh. This couldn’t be a good sign…
Boarding started promptly, and with a half full flight – a disturbingly regular occurrence on VX’s Love Field flights – finished quickly and we started moving about 10 minutes early. Our seats were 5A and 5B, in the “Express” section of Main Cabin seats. Ordinarily, these cost an additional $30 each, one way, but if any are still left at 24 hours before departure, you can select one at no charge during online check-in. The only benefit conferred upon Express Seats, aside from being near the front of the plane (usually Rows 4-7), is Group A boarding, so you can be the judge as to whether it’s worth paying for in advance. These seats contain the same 32″ pitch, black leather upholstery, and purple mood lighting as all other Main Cabin seats.
The seats were definitely tighter than the bulkhead Main Cabin Select seats we had on our flight from Los Angeles, but I still found them reasonably comfortable, with an especially comfortable headrest and decent enough thigh and posterior support. No sign of saddle sore, even after a 3 hour 40 minute flight. There was also sufficient knee and leg room once I moved my backpack out of the way after we reached 10,000 feet. As mentioned earlier, boarding was completed quickly due to the light load, and one annoying safety video later, we were on our way.
Main Cabin features the same basic entertainment and touch-screen ordering system as Main Cabin Select, except on-demand movies and a handful of “premium” channels, as well as snacks and alcoholic beverages, command an additional charge. I flipped through the TV for a few minutes, but not finding anything to my liking, and not really wanting to pay $5 for 30 minutes of WiFi, I just decided to listen to music, play cards on my phone, and enjoy the beautiful scenery instead (remember that since VX uses GOGO, if you use T-Mobile and have a WiFi Calling-enabled phone, you can text for free). I decided not to pay for any snacks, but ordered a ginger ale through the screen. The FAs came by fairly quickly after reaching cruising altitude to commence service, but oddly, they seemed to have no record of either me or my wife’s drink orders and asked us what we wanted again. No big deal, and the FA cheerfully handed us our drinks. I didn’t ask for a refill, but the great thing about the in-seat ordering system is that you can order another drink at your convenience, and it is brought to you fairly quickly. I love this system, and think it makes cabin service so much more efficient, especially on a longer flight.
Our travel day was a stunning beautiful day for mid-February, and we were treated to some great flightseeing from start to finish. (Call it fortuitous timing – had we taken this trip a week later, we’d have been stuck in San Francisco, as we’re slogging through Sleetmageddon here in Dallas as I write this post.) I’m going to put up another post detailing our route from Dallas to San Francisco, but here’s a few sneak peeks to whet your appetite.
Dallas skyline as we prepare to turn and line up with the runway centerline
Confluence of Colorado and San Juan Rivers in southern Utah
Crest of the Sierra Nevada near Mammoth Mountain, California
Looking towards a somewhat smoggy Silicon Valley, approaching the 680 freeway near Milpitas
Now turning northward over the south end of San Francisco Bay
With clear skies and light winds, we enjoyed a smooth approach and landing from the south. The best photo op of the flight, though, was waiting for us as we taxied to our gate at Terminal 2 – a United A320 painted in the vintage “Friend Ship” livery, and a China Southern Dreamliner headed to its gate. I could only get a butt shot of the 787, but you can still see that cool, curved wing. Those of you who follow the Road More Traveled on Instagram will recognize these photos; if you don’t visit my Instagram page, see what you’re missing? 🙂
We had only Saturday afternoon and the first half of Sunday to enjoy the City by the Bay, but we made the most of it, staying at the Kimpton Argonaut Hotel at Fisherman’s Wharf, riding a cable car, visiting Pier 39, Chinatown, Coit Tower, Lombard Street, Fort Mason, and eating way, WAY too much food. This will be a multi-part trip report series, so stay tuned for more over the next several weeks. Our flight was scheduled to depart at 5:00 PST Sunday, but about mid-morning, I received a message from Virgin America warning us of a 50-minute delay. Some quick investigation revealed that the culprit was bad weather in Washington, which delayed the flight to Dallas that would then continue on to pick us up in San Francisco. Bummer, but at least that gave us a little more time in the city, and time to find a place to get a box of See’s Candies for the office.
VX Flight 720
- February 15, 2015
- Depart: SFO Gate 54A, 18:23, 1 hr 13 min late
- Arrive: DAL Gate 11, 23:38, 1 hr 8 min late
- Main Cabin, Seats 19F, 19E
- Equipment: Airbus A319
First, an apology. I could have sworn that I took some photos of SFO Terminal 2 and the Virgin gate area, but I can’t find them on either my camera or my iPhone. I must have accidentally nuked them when downloading the rest of my photos. Anyway, SFO has done a pretty nice job with the new terminals, with the high ceilings letting in plenty of light, a smattering of plugs and work tables in the gate areas, and restaurants serving local cuisine. There is supposed to be free WiFi, but it didn’t work while we were there (then again, it didn’t work at DAL, either, so maybe it was a weird worldwide gremlin). And yes, if you didn’t have time, or just forgot, to pick up some Ghirardelli or See’s in the city, you can pick up a box at Natalie’s, conveniently located right at the entrance to the gates in T2. The one big complaint I have about this airport is the lack of airside connections between terminals, forcing you to go back through security, though I suppose that’s only a problem if you’re switching airlines.
We took the BART from downtown SF ($8.65 each way thanks to a hefty airport surcharge), getting to the airport station about 4:30. I’ve heard bad things about security at SFO, but it was a breeze on this evening, taking less than 10 minutes to get through. Our plane finally made it in from Dallas about an hour late, but thanks to a full flight for a change, they weren’t able to make up any time on the ground. We settled in to our seats in the next-to-last row, once again greeted by black leather and purple mood lighting.
I believe this was my first flight on an A319, and VX’s configuration on this plane is identical to the larger A320, except for 30 fewer Main Cabin seats. For some reason, though, these seats just didn’t seem as comfortable as those on the A320. Leg room was identical and adequate, but the cushion didn’t seem to provide very good support; my thighs were getting sore after about an hour and a half, similar to my last long distance experience on one of Southwest’s “Evolve” (or as I like to call them, “Devolve”) seats. I don’t know if there was really anything to it, or if it was just me getting tired after a day of bounding up and down San Francisco’s hilly streets.
I was bummed out that this flight didn’t take off on time, as our routing south then east across the bay would have provided some great views of the East Bay and the hills separating the Bay Area from the Central Valley during the last hour or so of daylight, but I was at least able to get a few decent photos as we pushed back and one of the city lights over the East Bay.
Old Glory tied to our plane’s wingtip in honor of Presidents’ Day
View of control tower as we head towards the runway
View southward down the East Bay
I flipped through channels on the TV and watched CNN for a little while, but eventually just decided to listen to music on my phone and watch our progress on the moving map. Frankly I was feeling too tired to do much else. The FAs on this flight were once again lovely, but it took a LOOONG time for them to get all the way to the back of the bus, a good hour and 15 minutes after takeoff. And once again, they had no record of the drinks we ordered on the touch screen. One little thing I appreciate about VX’s flight attendants, though, is that they consistently ask if you want ice with your drinks. I don’t like ice in my soft drinks, though I’m also bad about forgetting to ask without being prompted. Little things like that don’t go unnoticed, and are appreciated.
Unlike our approach to SFO, the Metroplex was dealing with the effects of an approaching cold front, and the approach was rough. VERY rough, especially around 12,000 feet and then again around 6,000 feet as we passed through an area of rain northwest of Ft. Worth. The wife didn’t like it, but we finally made it clear of the chop around 4,000 feet, and made it to the gate just a few minutes later, the last flight of the night at Love Field. Love can be hard to get to from Plano when there’s traffic, but one big advantage it has over DFW is a single terminal, and a single set of parking garages connected to the terminal. No need to worry about changing terminals if you land at a different one than you parked at, or waiting for the shuttle to take you to the el cheapo lot, two things you really don’t want to deal with when your flight arrives at 11:30 at night. We made it to our car in about 15 minutes, and were home about 40 minutes after that.
If I had one complaint about this set of flights, it was that the pilots provided NO communication with the passengers at all, on either leg. Zip. Not a quick explanation of our route and flight time before take-off (delegated to the purser instead), no update midway through, not even a “we’re on final approach, thanks for flying with us” message (also delegated to the purser). I don’t know what that’s all about, but it’s strange. Almost as strange as the East German-style uniforms VX makes them wear…
So how does Virgin America Main Cabin compare to coach on other carriers? I like it. The seat is the same, but the flight attendants are non-surly, the snacks for purchase are of a higher quality than what you find on the legacies, the free TV is nice, and just in general, the airline gives off a high quality, upscale vibe (if only they’d ditch that safety video…). Virgin really should be able to charge a small premium for the experience, something they don’t seem to have figured out how to do successfully just yet. Now that I have regular Main Cabin to compare to Main Cabin Select, would I say MCS is worth the extra cash? As usual, depends on how much the extra is. I’ve seen advance purchase MCS fares run anywhere from $59 to $300 more than regular Main Cabin each way to LAX. It’s a true Premium Economy product, so I’d peg the max I’m willing to pay at $100-150 each way (though if you want to roll the dice, VX typically sells day-of-departure upgrades for $69). It would just be nice if you had an option besides a bulkhead or exit row. But even if you can’t get MCS at a doable price, Main Cabin is a good Y-class product.