JetBlue vs Virgin America: The Final Showdown Part 2 – Virgin America First Class (Trip Report)


Welcome to part 2 of the final chapter of the JetBlue vs Virgin America trilogy. If you missed part 1, my flight in Mint on JetBlue, you can find it here.

Having had such a fantastic experience the day before, I did not have high hopes for Virgin America. Alaska has already announced that the Virgin America First Class seat will be going away, and not having tried it before, I knew I wanted to get on, but I didn’t think it could ever compete with Mint. Originally I was going to come back on Thursday, and I found availability using 25,000 Alaska miles. Sweet. The price was right, and you know what? The experience was good too, thanks to the flight attendant. (The hard product, well, read on…)

Even on my flight in, I knew I wasn’t going to stick around until Thursday. I was going to visit with friends who have a newborn Wednesday night, but my illness thwarted that plan. So as I winged my way east, I decided I would just fly straight home Wednesday afternoon after my event was done. The forecast for terrible weather Thursday (and undoubtedly long delays) sealed my resolve.

On the Mint flight, I went on the Alaska website to try to change my return. It showed me a 4:10pm flight from Newark on Wednesday with availability for just the $125 change fee, so I grabbed it. Or I thought I did. After going through the entire process and entering payment, it gave me an error. I tried a few times with no luck. I tried Twitter and they said to call reservations, so I had to wait until I was on the ground.

When I landed I drooled at the signage promoting the upcoming TWA Hotel. Then I called Alaska, and the agent said she did indeed see the same thing I did but she couldn’t get it to price. She put me on hold for a long time saying she had to talk to the rates desk and then came back to tell me that it was apparently an error and it wasn’t available. Not only that, but I couldn’t even do the full fare award on that flight. Damn.

Instead, I went back online and found the 4:55pm from JFK which was a hefty additional 35,000 miles. I was tired and just wanted to be done with this having wasted so much time, so I didn’t really blink at the cost. I pushed forward, picked my seat, put in payment… and then the error came up again. This time it said it confirmed the change (whew) but it told me that my seat assignment couldn’t be confirmed. This was taking me far too long. I ended up getting the Virgin America confirmation number, went to that website, and got my seat. Fortunately that was the last frustration I had, but it took me forever and I wasn’t happy. After talking to some Alaska folks about it, I was eventually refunded the difference, which helped take some of the sting out of it. This seems to be a known issue on the Alaska website, and if you run into it, send a note to customer relations and you should get the same treatment I did. I was assured this wasn’t special treatment for me.

The next day, after the successful event, I took a car from Midtown to JFK. It took about an hour in gridlock, though the driver said the traffic wasn’t actually too bad. He dropped me at Terminal 4, and I headed in through security.

I haven’t been to JFK in years; since before Delta moved in, actually. I do like that the ticketing area feels like a place to go if you’re flying somewhere far and exotic. I wasn’t, of course, but many were. And it was a beautiful day outside to watch all the heavy metal passing by.

I had time to kill so I actually did the impossible: I walked all the way to the end of Delta’s concourse B. Holy crap, I was winded after that 15 minute walk using the moving walkways. (I felt much better than the day before, but I still wasn’t in the best of health.) It’s no wonder they have the jitneys to shuttle people.

After walking, I came back to the tiny A concourse and waited for boarding. I was working on something so didn’t board right away. When I did get up to board, there was a long, slow moving line. But once onboard I was greeted by a big white seat… and an empty one next to me.

April 5, 2017
Virgin America 413 Lv New York/JFK 455p Arr Los Angeles 810p
New York (JFK): Gate A2, Runway 31L, Depart 4m Early
Los Angeles (LAX): Gate 36, Runway 24R, Arrive 22m Early
N630VA, Airbus A320-214, Standard Virgin America Tail, ~95% Full
Seat 2F, First Class
Flight Time 5h35m

I immediately thought I was seeing things when as soon as I walked onboard I found our flight attendant Nicholas holding a newborn. This is apparently a common occurrence on New York-LA flights.

At my seat, the first thing that stood out was the incredible amount of legroom. I knew there was a lot, but it really stands out when you’re sitting there. The second thing I noticed is that these seats were looking worse for wear. The tray table holder on the right armrest was chipped and sharp (Nicholas put tape on it later).

The seat controls were worn. And the people in front of me couldn’t get their seats to work properly. The flight attendant apologized and told them these seats are on their way out as a sheepish apology.

The captain came into the galley and told us about our flight (I love that gesture). He said we’d have a 30 minute taxi but still be in LA early. We pushed back early and the safety video started playing. That’s when I realized the awkwardness of the First Class seats having video screens stored in the armrest. The flight attendant has to act out the motions up front since the screens can’t be pulled out until above 10,000 feet. The flight attendant who drew the short straw on this flight looked dead serious, trying to go through the motions without dancing along.

We ended up with a mere 15 minute taxi and were airborne shockingly fast. We had to corkscrew around as usual, but soon we were above 10,000 feet and chugging west.

Nicholas, the flight attendant, was very, very good. I got really lucky both ways on this trip. He was attentive, and when he asked what I wanted to eat, I told him I wasn’t feeling great and wasn’t hungry. He asked if I wanted to order something that he could bring later. I told him I was fine, and if I got hungry, I’d take whatever was left. He brought me a couple bottles of water, a couple of mini amenity kits for my kids (he remembered I has casually mentioned something about having kids, great memory) and then left me alone to stare out the window at the clouds from the storm front ahead.

After a bit of NOTHING to try to clear my head, I turned on the TV and watched the nightly news. I was amazed at the seatbelt management on this flight. We had on-and-off light chop. It wasn’t anything significant, but most other pilots would have flipped the light on at several points. Our pilots never did.

I reclined in my chair, and it was pretty comfy. No, it’s not a flat bed like Mint, but it’s much better than regular domestic First Class. And it is more than adequate for an afternoon flight that’s not even 6 hours.

Nicholas kept me pumped full of tea, and somewhere over Iowa he asked again if I was hungry. I actually was, so he brought me a prosciutto salad which, while small, was really good and nicely presented.

I logged on and did some work, or tried. Gogo wasn’t fast, but in a rare turn of events, it was at least somewhat usable. I did get thrown for a loop trying to log on when Gogo unexpectedly redirected me to the Japanese log-in page. Not sure what the heck was going on.

At least Gogo worked. I can’t say the same for my power outlet which didn’t work at all. The empty seat next to me had power for a bit, but then it stopped and came back later. Fortunately I had enough juice to keep me going.

We made it to the Rockies and Nicholas asked if I wanted a cookie he had just baked. I actually did and was clearly starting to feel somewhat better.

I watched a movie for the last couple hours and worked my way home.

With about an hour to go, Nicholas came by and asked if I needed anything else. I didn’t, but I asked him what he thought about the Alaska merger. He’s been with Virgin America since the beginning and had a really good, healthy perspective on the whole thing. I won’t give details since I never asked for permission to use his comments (and he didn’t know who I was anyway), but it was a good response to an interested customer.

It was a beautiful evening in Los Angeles as we chased the failing daylight toward the horizon. We touched down early and our gate was ready for us. I was thrilled to have survived this trip, and I was incredibly glad to be home. As I walked off the airplane, Nicholas looked me in the eye, said “feel better” and shook my hand.

And so ends the JetBlue vs Virgin America trilogy. Mint is a truly amazing experience from a hard and soft product perspective. But Virgin America held its own. The hard product was clearly lacking (and not well-maintained), but as is often the case, the service made the flight.

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