Seattle - Los Angeles
Main Cabin Select
- Excellent In-flight entertainment with refreshment ordering system
- Cheap upgrades to higher cabin classes
- Dire food options
- No pre-flight lounge access
- New planes with stylish mood-lit cabins
- Inflight internet
With Virgin Australia now running codeshare flights with Virgin America to eight US cities, we thought it would be a good opportunity to road-test Virgin America's Main Cabin Select offering – an 'Economy Plus'-style product – on a flight from Seattle to Los Angeles, before heading home to Australia.
Main Cabin Select is available at booking time as a more expensive option than booking a full-fare economy ticket, however, if there are seats available, Virgin America offer inexpensive upgrades to Main Cabin Select (24 hours before the flight) and First Class (6 hours before the flight) when you check-in online or at the airport.
These upgrades start at US$39 for the shortest flights.
As well as being available as a paid upgrade to the airline's standard 'Main Cabin' economy section, Main Cabin Select is also what you'll get if you're connecting to a Virgin America service after travelling across the Pacific in Premium Economy on Virgin Australia's 777 service to Los Angeles.
At Seattle, Virgin America is located towards the end of the South Terminal, reasonably close to the main security check-point. They operate self-service kiosks, as well as three queues for check-in operators.
The priority check-in line is available for First Class and Main Cabin Select, as well as Platinum, Gold and Silver members of Virgin Australia's Velocity Frequent Flyer programme.
Main Cabin Select also gets you access to the priority security screening line at the airport (as does your Velocity Platinum or Gold card), and the time spent speeding past the slow security queue might well be worth the cost of the upgrade alone.
Virgin America doesn't have a lounge at Seattle, in fact it has lounges at only three US airports – San Francisco, New York, and Washington DC – and those are a strictly pay-to-enter affair, even if you're flying first class. Door fees range from US$35 for the San Francisco and Washington DC lounges to $75 for New York.
Main Cabin Select is currently available on two rows of Virgin Americas Airbus A320s: the better of the two is row 3, which is located behind First Class, separated by a funky purple divider.
In that regard it's similar to the 'extra legroom' economy class row 3 in Virgin Australia's Boeing 737-800s, which is reserved for high-status Velocity members (for which, thankfully, Virgin Australia says it has no plans to convert into a paid 'economy plus' row).
The second Main Cabin Select row is row 10, where I was seated. It's one of two exit rows, so there was no pesky reclining seat in front of me.
The seat's a standard exit row economy seat, with pitch around the 38-inch mark, which means there's a good amount of legroom between you and the seat in front of you.
I could comfortably use my 13" laptop on my lap without any space issues.
At every seat is a USB power outlet, as well as a standard (for America) 110V power socket for keeping your laptop charged throughout the flight.
The cabin of this very new A320 is clean and white, but lit up with deep purple LED mood lights, which gives it a relaxed, inviting and suitably 'hip' feel.
Here's how things look through the lens of Virgin America's PR department.
The reality's a bit darker but still quite appealing.
The LED lighting is used to very good effect throughout the flight.
Meals in Main Cabin Select definitely fall on the 'economy' end of the food quality scale.
Even for Virgin America's six-hour transcontinental services, which would equate to Australia's coast to coast flights, there's no real option for a substantial meal.
That said, if your flight is two hours or longer, a wide variety of sandwich-style options become available, which is something Virgin Australia could stand to learn from.
The good news is that Virgin America's entire food and drink menu is available free of charge to Main Cabin Select guests, including pre-assembled snack boxes.
The drinks selection includes a decent range of spirits and specialty beers, with some excellent fruit juices if you prefer something non-alcoholic.
What sets Virgin America's buy-on-board system apart from the rest is the ordering system: the entire menu is made available through the inflight entertainment system.
Putting together your meal is just a matter of browsing through the menus, selecting items as you go, and finally selecting the checkout. A few minutes, your flight attendant turns up with your menu selections.
Guests in economy have the same menu options available, but have to pay for their selections – which is also done straight from the screen via credit card.
The whole process seems a lot more efficient than pushing a trolley to every passenger who might not want something...
Entertainment & Service
Virgin America's excellent 'Red' inflight entertainment will be familiar to travellers on Virgin Australia's 777s and newer A330s.
There's a selection of movies, TV shows, and music pre-loaded plus several satellite TV channels.
Red also provides a nifty flight information page, backed by Google Maps.
These let you zoom in on the plane's current location, so that you can figure out what the landmarks are when you see them through your window.
As good as Red is, however, the best entertainment is the in-flight internet service.
This is powered by the Gogo ground-to-air mobile network, so it's pretty fast – there was enough bandwidth there for me to use streaming internet radio from my phone, as well as checking e-mail and Twitter.
Gogo's internet service is available pretty much everywhere over the continental United States, which is great for transcontinental trips, with the cost varying from US$5 to US$18 depending on the length of your flight.
If you're doing a lot of flying with Virgin America you can buy a one-month Traveller Pass for US$35, although Gogo sells its own US$40 pass that's good for one month's worth of inflight Internet on any Gogo-equipped US airline.
Read our hands-on review of Virgin America's inflight Internet
The service and in-flight product aboard Virgin America is amongst the best I've encountered for a US domestic service, but be aware that Main Cabin Select definitely falls under the 'economy plus' umbrella rather than being a fuller featured 'premium economy' service. The food selections were particularly dire on this short flight.
If you've got the opportunity to upgrade from economy to Main Cabin Extra, it might be worth it for the extra legroom – but if you're paying to upgrade, especially on long flights, don't overlook stepping all the way up to First Class, which is Virgin America's business class.