Route: San Francisco to Las Vegas
Carrier: Virgin America
Class: Economy – Main Cabin Select. I booked into main cabin select as it was only marginally more expensive than the main cabin but included a free bag per person. At the time of booking I expected us both to have a fully packed suitcase, however ironically we didn’t check any bags as we decided last minute to travel very light out of a backpack each (that’s right 7kg per person for almost 5 weeks – kind of proved you don’t really need all that checked luggage for holidays). The cabin also includes extra legroom at 38″ seat pitch in the first row of the main cabin (and I believe the emergency exit rows too) and complimentary meals and entertainment.
Check In & Terminal: Terminal 2 of San Francisco International Airport hosts Virgin America and American Airlines and seemed like a very modern and well thought out terminal. Check in was via a kiosk in the departures hall, which was relatively painless – although there is a bit of a time gap when printing the boarding oases and it seemed a few people before us had given up waiting, as there were a pile of boarding passes at the kiosk when we arrived to print ours. As main cabin select passengers we had priority security clearance, which was as usual for US airports a blessing with a considerably shorter queue. The boarding pass checking TSA guy was the first I’ve encountered with a sense of humor – from memory we had to each name an Australian native animal to get past.
Once inside the terminal there is a central food court area in the centre of the concourse with “hydration stations” also scattered around the terminal (presumably to refill your water bottle that TSA made you skull). There is also an Admirals Club lounge, but as we were on Virgin I didn’t even bother trying to get in with my QF card. Virgin didn’t seem to have a lounge here, but even if it did I doubt we would have had any access.
Departure: Waiting in pod like chairs outside Gate 51A there seemed to be a bit of tension within the Virgin America staff as one agent madly tried to staff two gates while another was ‘on a break’. A few angry radio calls later and we had a few extra agents ready to board our flight. Before boarding was called the captain came to the gate and made a personal welcome announcement before providing details of our departure and estimated arrival times.
The pilots greeting was a nice welcoming touch that was continued across all our Virgin staff interactions. In boarding group A we were amongst the first to board and settle into Seats 3A and 3B after being extremely well greeted by the bubbly cabin crew. The crew was really chatty and friendly and they seemed to enjoy having Australians on board (until they found out we flew over on that other airline and not their partner V Australia – but they got over that soon enough). We ended up departing 3mins early, which added to the great start to the flight. Of course I’ve added the video of our take off for all of you die hard plane fans like myself.
Seat: 3A and 3B are the window and centre seats in the first row of the main cabin (main cabin select seats). Virgin publishes 38″ as the seat pitch, which makes for plenty of legroom, even for my 6’4″ and a bit tall husband. The seats themselves are covered in black leather which is nice and comfy and the Airbus’s slightly extra width makes the 3-3 seating configuration the main cabin feel a bit wider (not sure if they have gone for wider seats or wider aisle). There is a solid bulkhead in front of the seats, but the top half is tinted Perspex and it is a decent distance away so doesn’t feel cramped – plus it’s new and looks funky.
Aircraft: I must say that the setup of Virgin America’s Airbus A319 is really fun and inviting. The mood lighting really does help set the scene for the flight and the purple and blues go really well. The front of each seat panel (housing the tray and IFE screen) is white which contrasts nicely with the black leather seats. There are American flags painted onto the inside of the A319’s mini winglets too which are I guess to make the virgin brand a little more American. In a move away from tradition the standard overhead panel illuminated signs (e.g. seat belt and no smoking) have the no smoking just illuminated spot replaced by a “turn off electronics” light – much more practical in today’s age.
IFE: “Red” is Virgin’s setback on demand IFE solution and much more. Luckily its use is complimentary for Main Cabin Select passengers so we got to have a good play through it. Headsets are also provided free of charge, which would have been handy to know after paying $2 each for them in the terminal prior to boarding. There is a wide selection of American TV and movies as well as music choices that would be better used on a transcontinental flight rather than the short flight to Vegas. Of course if TV and movies aren’t your thing and you really want to read my next post live at 35,000 feet you can hop onto the Wi-Fi by renting a chrome book in the San Fran (and many other) terminals. That’s rights – rent at San Fran kiosk and return it at Vegas – simple yet really smart idea!
Meal: Food and drinks are included in the ticket price for main cabin select, although if you are a gadget geek like us, the food will be secondary to how you get the food. On these Virgin America flights gone are the days of the flight attendants pushing the cart up and down the aisle asking every passenger what they would like. That is replaced by an online ordering system as part of the IFE system. Each product available has a price next to it (which for us was all $0.00) and you just pick what you want into your cart and click order (if you are in the main cabin I guess you swipe your credit card to pay) Then the trolley rolls down the aisle and delivers everyone’s orders without interrupting whatever you are watching. Of course you can still chat with the crew but it’s just so much more efficient and personalized. Also there were many more options than the snickers, lemonade and pringles that I ordered – I really wasn’t that hungry (maybe due to a hangover).
Arrival: Flying over the hot desert on approach into Las Vegas McCarran International Airport threw up a few bumps but also provides an awesome view of the Las Vegas strip and city. From here it’s very easy to see that Vegas really is a city in the middle of a desert, and begins to prepare you for the over the top’ness that is Vegas. It’s also impressive how close the airport is to the strip. I guess they don’t want you to waste good gambling time in a taxi, so much so that it’s only a short walk from gate B17 within Terminal 1 before you come across your first slot machine. Welcome to Vegas Baby! Although arriving 1 minute early, we didn’t hit the slots that fast and instead headed out into the VERY hot Vegas heat to grab a shuttle into the strip.
Crew & Overall: Regardless of how good your hard product is (the seats, plane etc.) a good flight really comes down to good crew – and the crew being in a good mood. This flight, just like one of Richard Branson’s over the top media events was really a whole lot of fun. The hard product rocked, and the crew entertained, welcomed and related really well with everyone on board. I make no secret that I’m a Qantas fan boy, but this experience really has made me rethink giving Virgin Australia another try. As my husband put it, “I had so much fun on that flight”, and I couldn’t agree more.