Monday, July 23, 2007

Introducing Virgin America

Virgin America, a U.S.-based affiliate of the already enormous Virgin empire of Richard Branston (though only owned 25% by Virgin Group because of U.S. laws restricting foreign ownership of airlines), started selling tickets at 6:00 a.m. EDT on July 20. The first flights are scheduled for August 8, pending Government approval.

Now, I know what you're thinking: another airline? It's true that we have quite a few of them these days, but before you write this off as a waste, let me tell you some of the things that promise to make Virgin America different from most of the airlines flying today:
  • Outlets at every seat with standard 110v power, USB connectors, and Ethernet for broadband Internet access
  • Self-serve mini-bars and fresh food that can be ordered from your seat and bought with the swipe of a credit card
  • Mood lighting that changes over the course of the flight to create a relaxing atmosphere
  • A First Class cabin with reclining leather seats with footrests, equivalent to what you'd find on international business class on America's legacy carriers
  • On-demand digital entertainment including television by Dish Network, pay-per-view movies, and video games
Up until this point, I would have subjectively rated JetBlue as America's most advanced airline, on account of their DirecTV video service, expanded seating, and overall excellent service for extremely reasonable prices; Virgin America looks ready to challenge them on every level. By opting for two-class service, they're also taking aim at the lucrative business market served by the legacy carriers.

Most of my questions at this point focus on Virgin America's frequent flyer program, eleVAte. Would-be travelers can join today, but details on the program are still sparse. What's known so far is that eleVAte is a point-based program (5 points per $1 spent on travel), and award tickets will be available for any open seat. What we don't know so far, though, is...
  • Will upgrades be available using points? (Probably.)
  • How many points will it take to book an award seat?
  • Is there an elite status tier system?
  • And the big question: will Virgin America's eleVAte program include partner affiliation with Virgin Atlantic's Flying Club?
This last point matters a lot. Why? Well, because Virgin America is a domestic low-cost carrier. That means you'll be able to fly VA* around the United States--but to really compete in the business travel market, an airline needs to be able to offer international service. Virgin Atlantic already offers service around the world; if Virgin America flyers gain access to the benefits of the huge Virgin Atlantic route map, the appeal to fly with VA will be much greater.

Anyway, flights scheduled to start on August 8, with initial routes operating out of San Francisco/SFO with service to New York/JFK and Los Angeles/LAX. Direct LAX-JFK service should start on August 29, and VA plans to add Washington-Dulles and Las Vegas-McCarran to the mix before the end of October. (Refer to the route map.)

I'm planning my first flight on Virgin America to be over Labor Day weekend. Check back for an update at that point.



* Virgin America has been assigned the code "VX" because "VA" is already assigned to Virgin Atlantic. But I think most people will refer to them as "VA" anyway, especially since the airline chose to call its frequent flyer program "eleVAte".

3 comments:

Mary said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Mary said...

VX is a dumb assignment for Virgin America. They should have called it VAm, or VM at least. What assignment would they give to a Virgin Australian domestic carrier? VY? VZ? VD, maybe?

Kristi said...

What is the answer to your final question about the eleVAte/Flying Club compatibility, btw?