Was Virgin America The Best Airline The US Will Ever Have?

Virgin America shook up the US domestic market, with a focus on service and passenger experience that was severely lacking among its competitors. Today, we can see elements of its influence in airlines all over the US, but was it the best airline the US will ever have?

Virgin America Branson
Virgin America dared to be different. Photo: Getty Images

Entering the market with a bang

When Virgin America broke into the US market in 2007, it was determined to shake things up. At a time when US airlines were competing in a race to the bottom, cutting services and legroom in a bid to offer the lowest fares, Virgin America came in with a different attitude.

The Branson-led airline wanted to be as colorful as its founder. Even before it took wing, it was presenting a feisty attitude. When the Department of Transportation (DoT) rejected its application to fly in 2006, the airline launched a powerful campaign called ‘Let VA fly.’

Garnering support from a brand new social network calling itself ‘Twitter’, the airline formed a ready-made fan base, with passengers writing to Congress and signing petitions to get the application revisited. It worked, and in 2007 approval was granted. The first flight took off in August that year – a transcon from New York to San Francisco.

Virgin America
The airline wanted to bring low fares with exemplary service to the domestic market. Photo: Virgin Group

For the rest of the industry, Virgin America was seen as something rather unnecessary. Its dream of providing great service, great design and an exemplary passenger experience went against the trend for no-frills flying for all, and few thought it would succeed. In the end, it was absorbed into Alaska Airlines, who couldn’t wait to shake off the brand. But in the decade it flew, it showed US airlines that it was possible to have fair fares and a great experience. Was it the best domestic airline the US will ever have?

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What was different at Virgin America?

For fliers of Virgin America, the experience was designed to be different from start to finish. Arriving at the airport, passengers would check-in via a state-of-the-art tablet interface (unheard of in 2007) and then would relax at the gate in designer recliners awaiting their flight.

Onboard, their signature Virgin purple lighting reigned supreme. The airline was one of the first to adopt mood lighting on its planes, and rather than giving cabin crew the freedom to pick and choose the colors, the airline was strict in prescribing only hues of pink and purple. According to Virgin’s design team, the palette is calming and avoided the appetite suppressing characteristics of blue and green.

Branson Virgin America
The mood lighting of purple hues was said to be calming. Photo: Getty Images

Seating onboard was provided in super comfortable black leather, with generous padding for a comfortable transcon. The 32” of pitch and inflight entertainment at every seat beat every other airline out of the park. The airline even spent extra money to hide the IFE boxes underneath the cabin floors to avoid impinging on available legroom. And that’s just economy.

Virgin America
First class saw white leather recliners with reading lights and massage function. Photo: Getty Images

Up in first, passengers were treated to white leather recliners with an incredible 52” of pitch. Not only that, but they had their own individual reading lights, adjustable leg rests and lumbar support. Oh, and you could get a massage from those seats as well.

Virgin America
Snacks and drinks were standard in all classes. Photo: Getty Images

Flight attendants would lovingly serve local snacks such as caramel popcorn to passengers in all classes, and take off drinks were usually sparkling wine or absinthe cocktails. Add to this the fact the airline was first to offer WiFi onboard, the first to adopt an at-seat food ordering system and the first to bring the benefits of digital to its customer service, perhaps Virgin America really was the best airline the US domestic market will ever have.

First Flights of Virgin America - LAX to SFO
In-seat ordering and seatback screens at every seat were not the norm at the time. Photo: Getty Images

The legend lives on

Virgin America was named the best domestic airline for every year of its operations in the Travel + Leisure World’s Best Awards. In the World Airline Awards in 2012, it scooped best domestic airline, best low-cost airline and best staff service. It received a four-star SKYTRAX rating, and its digital experience won Work&Co an armful of tech awards for their efforts.

Although Virgin America has now long gone, its ethos lives on in many of the services seen on domestic airlines today. Although JetBlue has been around since before VA arrived on the scene, it was only in 2013 that it brought its Mint first class product to the market. Was it inspired by the exemplary service on Virgin America first? Perhaps.

JetBlue mint
Was JetBlue’s Mint inspired by Virgin’s first class offering? Photo: JetBlue

In 2014, American Airlines introduced the A321T on transcon routes, again with a lie-flat proposition. Delta has also moved to bring more Delta One lie-flat seats to the transcon market, while a handful of United flights use international business class products in first.

That’s just one element of the Virgin America influence on the domestic US market. Today, most airlines offer WiFi of some sort or another. There’s usually inflight entertainment provided, either on seatback screens or bring your own devices. On longer flights, there are often complimentary snacks and drinks. We’re not sure if it’s caramel popcorn and absinthe cocktails, though.

What do you think? Was Virgin America the best domestic airline the US will ever have? Let us know what you think in the comments.