Alaska Airlines, Virgin America

Review: Virgin America (Alaska Airlines) First Class JFK-LAX

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Right now, Virgin America and Alaska fly under one operating certificate, yet the actual experience remains somewhat separate until April 24th when the full and complete integration wraps up.

That means some of what is below will only be relevant until April 24, 2018. I’ll start with how I upgraded into First Class and what we can expect to change come April 24.

I was booked on a coach Virgin America ticket booked via the Alaska Airlines website (AS ticket stock, VX operating carrier). I paid all of $109 for my one way JFK-LAX ticket.

I currently hold Alaska Airlines MVP Gold (mid-tier) status through a match with my Delta Gold status, which I’m going to let expire, because, Skymiles.

View of economy

Currently, Alasksa MVP Gold or better status will get you a few benefits on Virgin America but not the full boat of Alaska perks. It will allow you to change your flight at no charge, bring on 2 checked bags up to 50 lbs for free, and, best of all, clear you into Main Cabin Select (extra legroom and free snacks) for free at 24 hours before the flight.

I should mention here that Alaska’s First Class lines up to other carrier’s transcon Business Class product. Your expectation should be of Business Class, not transcontinental three-cabin First Class as American Airlines provides with their Flagship First product.

Now here’s the best part. You can also upgrade from that Main Cabin Select seat into First Class for the price of a Main Cabin Select –> First Class upgrade according to the Virgin America upgrade price chart. For the longest flights, like JFK-LAX, that upgrade fee will be $240. It would be $399 if you had no status and if there were seats available.  MVP Gold and MVP Gold 75 customers get first crack and a reduced rate.

Pair of Virgin America First Class seats

Note that you’ll need to go on the Virgin America site or call them to be on the list for the auto upgrade to MCS. Only once you are cleared in at your window (24 hours for MVP Gold and up, 12 hours for Alaska MVP members) can you pay to upgrade to First.

Is it worth $240? Well, that’s up to you! But the cheapest business class seats I ever see transcon start at over $600 (and are often around $1,000 one way). So if you get a cheap coach fare like I did, this is a way to get up front for about $350 all-in.  It’s also worth noting that it’s the only transcon premium cabin operated with recliner seats and not lie-flat seats. So I would not do this for an overnight flight.

Also note, Alaska plans to harmonize the seats with their current product. They will be adding First Class seats to the Virgin planes, but will do so by removing these giant recliners in favor of their standard First seats. However, come April 25, 2018, upgrades on these routes should be completely complimentary for Alaska elites. So the product will be less special, but it will be free.

On to the experience:

Check-in at JFK is now at Terminal 7. Both Virgin and Alaska Airlines flights check in here now. There is a special line for First Class and if precheck is closed like it was for me, you do at least get a shortcut entry line to security with your First Class boarding pass.  I tried to check a bag of around 60 lbs, only to learn that no matter your status and class of travel, 50 lbs per bag is the max. I bring this up as AA/DL/UA all allow up to 70 lbs.  WIth Virgin / Alaska, you’ll have to pay an excess fee. I believe that would have been $50, but I reorganized my bags on the floor of the terminal to avoid that.

The Lounge:

First Class passengers have no lounge access. There’s not even a Priority Pass lounge. You used to get access to the Virgin Clubhouse in Terminal 4, but no longer. They say a new Alaska lounge will be built next year.

Boarding and the Seat:

You’ll board first and they’ll be happy to bring you a pre-departure beverage onboard. I got some nice shots of the seats here. There were just 3 passengers in First out of 8 seats. You’ll notice the massive amount of legroom. Even with someone reclined all the way, you still have plenty of legroom.  These are still the original Virgin America seats, so they aren’t exactly new. But they are very comfortable. Just as comfortable as any other carrier’s first/business class seats domestically – as long as you didn’t want to lie flat.

Pair of Virgin America First Class seats

The only domestic transcons that beat it in Business Class as a pure seat are JetBlue’s Mint products and the Delta One product – as both allow for direct aisle access for all passengers. On Virgin America, like with American and United’s domestic transcontinental business class products, you can be in an “inside” seat, needing to ask your seatmate to get out.

The seat is highly adjustable, has tons of legroom, and has a massive amount of pitch at 55″.  It also has a built-in lumbar adjustment and massage feature (check inside your armrest).  Power ports are provided (110 volt and USB).

There was also a somewhat bizarre mini-amenity kit which included eyeshades:

 

They could totally up their game on the headphones:

Service: 

Fully adequate. Meaning, there was no pampering going on here and I sometimes had to work a bit to get the attention of the flight attendant, but he certainly handled every request of mine without issue or fuss. It very much felt like service you’d expect on a non-transcontinental medium-haul First Class product with any domestic carrier – except for the meal, which was stellar.

I hadn’t flown First on Virgin America since the airline launched in 2007 (I tried the product in 2008 back when I was running HotelMagician.com), so I really had no idea what to expect for the meal.

Here’s the menu:

The starter:

Tuscan Kale Salad and bread

For lunch, I had the steak. The steak was cooked perfectly, flavorful, not tough at all. I’d have been happy with it at a restaurant.  And while I wasn’t drinking alcohol on my daytime working flight, I was kept well full of iced coffees.

Filet Mignon

I loved the salt and pepper shaker:

And dessert, the flourless chocolate cake:

And a freshly baked chocolate chip cookie:

The Wifi was provided by Gogo (standard Gogo service, not the new upgraded kind but speeds were fine). I was online for free for the full flight using my TMobile/Gogo trick.

On arrival at LAX, it was a speedy exit and my bags came off the carousel before I even got to them.

Summary:

Based on the total price of my ticket including upgrade being about $350, it’s hard to find fault. If I paid $1,000 for the flight, as Virgin America tends to sell for, I’d regret not going for JetBlue Mint. But for $350 on a domestic transcontinental flight, it earned a solid 4 stars. Check below for other ways into this cabin without paying $1,000

Booking:

As described, I upgraded my coach seat to First for $240 as an Alaska Gold MVP. But even with no status, you might consider using miles. You have a few options. You can use 25k Alaska MileagePlan miles now. Or for flights beginning after April 25th, 2018, you can also use 25k American AAdvantage miles. You could technically also use Avios, but the way BA prices First Class means this would cost you 50,000 Avios each way. Better to use those on economy shorter distance redemptions.

Pros: 

Comfortable seat, lots of ways to position the seat, lumbar support, massager, excellent food.

Cons:

No lounge at JFK, no lie-flat seats, service a bit lackluster

Have you flown Virgin America in First Class?  Let me know here, on Twitter, or in the private MilesTalk Facebook group.

New to all of this? My new “introduction to miles and points” book, MilesTalk: Live Your Wildest Travel Dreams Using Miles and Points is available now.