Thursday, October 9, 2008

Virgin America focuses on luxury choices

Times are tough for the airlines. Oil has plummetted from nearly $150 per barrel to less than $100, and usually, that would be good news. But with the economy unraveling in what many consider the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression, airlines are now facing a challenge from the other side of the equation: fewer people flying, for business or pleasure.

A drop in passenger bookings isn't good news under any circumstances, but the stakes are particularly high for relative-newcomer Virgin America. Launched in (year), Virgin America styles itself as the ultra-hip airline with a younger staff, next-generation amenities, and innovative service (like letting you order a drink when you want one, rather than waiting for the drink cart to pass by). It's been an effective combination that has earned Virgin America plenty of kudos--but with a smaller route map and fewer established customers, how will this feisty company weather the current economic downturn?

The answer, at least in part, seems to be luxury. Hoping to lure passengers not only from rival low-cost carriers like Southwest but also from legacy carriers like United and Delta, Virgin recently introduced Main Cabin Select. Similar at first glance to United's Economy Plus seating, Main Cabin Select gives you the same style of seat as regular Coach but with more legroom and deeper seat pitch.

Whereas that's all that you get with United, though, Virgin America has taken it several steps further, offering an impressive list of amenities:
  • Priority check-in at the First Class counter;
  • No change/cancel fee associated with Main Cabin Select;
  • Pillows, blankets, headsets and water at every seat;
  • Complimentary food, snacks, and beverages; and
  • Unlimited use of the RED™ entertainment system, including premium movies and other features.

In effect, Main Cabin Select has become a mini-First Class. On the one hand, that's a little surprising, since Virgin America already has First Class seating. But in today's extremely challenging market, Virgin America needs every trick it can muster to compete with larger, more established carriers. If Main Cabin Select does what it's meant to do, then it's a great idea.

Oh, and there's also good news for those of you who are frequent flyers with Virgin America already: at long last, Virgin America has gotten its mileage redemption system in place so that you can use your hard-earned Elevate miles for free travel.

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