Review: Virgin America Main Cabin Select

I recently took two transcontinental flights (between Washington-Dulles and LAX) on Virgin America. I had never flown them before, but thanks to my MVP Gold 75K status on Alaska, I thought it was time to lose my Virgin America virginity.

I was curious both to try Virgin, and to see what perks were available for Alaska MVP flyers at this point in the merger of the two airlines.

Booking

Ben reviewed his recent flight in Virgin America’s first class and discussed his experience requesting a complimentary Main Cabin Select seat and paying to upgrade to first class. I had a somewhat similar experience, but I booked the flights before Virgin was offering Alaska elites complimentary Main Cabin Select upgrades, so I had to call to make the request once they announced the benefit.

I actually called Virgin America, but was transferred automatically to Alaska Airlines. The Alaska agent was very nice (they almost universally are), but didn’t seem familiar with the process to request Main Cabin Select upgrades, so she put me on hold. She came back after speaking with her supervisor and one other person, neither of whom knew what to do. So she transferred me back to Virgin America.

The Virgin America agent made the requests for me quickly. Sure enough, when I went to check in for each flight, I saw that I had been upgraded (I never received a “you’ve been upgraded!” email).

The Flights

On Virgin America, Main Cabin Select is a lot like Alaska’s Premium Class. It includes:

  • Seats with more legroom (exit row/bulkhead);
  • Free food and alcohol; and
  • Priority boarding

The priority boarding is a bit of a moot point, as MVP Gold 75k members get to board first anyway.

On my first flight, I chose a bulkhead aisle seat, and on the other I reserved an exit row aisle seat. (I’m actually a window seat guy, but none were available on either flight.)

On many airlines, bulkhead and exit row seats have armrests that completely partition seats, but on Virgin America they’re just regular armrests.

Virgin America Main Cabin Select
Bulkhead seats (Main Cabin Select)
Virgin America Main Cabin Select exit row seats

In both the exit row and bulkhead seats, legroom was plentiful (though I’m only 5’6”, so I can practically lay down comfortably in a medium-sized dog kennel… not that I would).

The black leather seats themselves have adjustable headrests and were really comfortable, especially in an age when airlines are refitting their fleets with slimline seats.

Bulkhead seats (Main Cabin Select) leg room

The tables in the exit row are built into the bulkhead, and slide out like a drawer. I like it – they feel more sturdy than your typical tray tables. The purple transparent plastic bulkhead itself is way cooler than the partition you’d find on other carriers.

Bulkhead seats (Main Cabin Select)
Bulkhead seats (Main Cabin Select)

The entertainment selection was not great, to be honest: a few dozen movies and TV shows, none of which particularly interested me. Virgin America uses Gogo wifi (which was decent), and text messaging is free for everyone, just like on Alaska.

Entertainment controller (there’s also a touch screen)

You order food and drinks through the entertainment system, which is pretty unique. Most food and alcohol are free to Main Cabin Select passengers, and the people sitting in my row definitely took advantage of that fact, ordering multiple selections from the food menu and several rounds of libations.

Virgin America Snacks

Keep in mind that none of the food is hot – there are pre-packaged variety packs (such as a cheese plate, a protein box, and a kids’ pack), some sandwiches (PB&J, roast beef), a salad, and several snacks (chocolate chip cookies, coconut chocolate brownies, chips, jerky, etc.).

Between my two flights, I tried the cheese plate (it was good, but the description said it had muenster cheese in it, and it didn’t!), brownies (yummy but coconutty), and cookies (a little too crunchy for my taste). I also had a glass of their La Brune et Fils Chardonnay, which was good.

Virgin America Snacks

It seems that they expect people to order through the entertainment system shortly after takeoff, and then they come through the cabin with food and beverage carts a few minutes later to fulfill the orders. However, after the initial food and beverage service, people would order additional snacks and drinks, and the flight attendants had to make dozens of trips back and forth to fulfill the orders. Must be exhausting!

As far as the service goes, it was good – basically like the big three U.S. carriers when you happen to get a decent crew. They were friendly, but did seem to be going through the motions for the most part.

Main Cabin Select Middle Seat vs. Main Cabin Aisle/Window

Keep in mind that if you upgrade to MCS through your status, you may be put in a middle seat. So which is better: an MCS middle seat or a regular Main Cabin seat in the aisle/next to the window?

That will come down to personal preference. If you’re tall, you’ll probably really value the legroom of MCS. Similarly, if you’re planning to eat and/or drink booze, it’d probably be worth it.

On the other hand, if you’re short and aren’t going to eat or drink alcohol, you might prefer a window/aisle seat in the Main Cabin. Seat pitch is still better than on most other domestic airlines, and everything else about the experience is the same.

Bottom line

Virgin America is a nice airline on which to fly economy. Too bad it’ll be going away in a couple years. Alaska’s Premium Class is nice, but the snack box they give you isn’t nearly as appealing as the variety of food options Virgin offers for free in MCS.

Have you flown Main Cabin Select? What was your experience?

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Comments

  1. I like the Baileys! Delicious and something you don’t always find for free outside of business/first. I do feel bad for the FAs constantly delivering snacks and drinks though.

  2. “Seat pitch is still better than on most other domestic airlines…”

    Think you’re being generous. At 32″ (non-MCS) VX pitch seems middle of the pack. I find the seats cramped (I’m 6′). Jet Blue is much more comfy at 32-33″. The problem with VX is there are so few MCS seats on the plane.

  3. Most seasoned VX travelers know the ‘order ALL the food you might want for the whole flight straight after takeoff’ drill when seated in MCS.

    The RED system knows inventory levels, and options will disappear off the screen once inventory is depleted. Not an issue on shorter flights, but on transcons you might get peckish 2.5 hrs in but the sandwich you fancied has since disappeared.

  4. On one of my flights all the food ordering on the system was cut off after first service. I didn’t try and order manually.
    I have heard the tray on the bulkhead row is a little far away to work at comfortably with a laptop but haven’t tried myself.
    Many AS agents don’t know what MCS is and play middle man with a VX liaison. Best to contact VX through Twitter to request getting on the MCS list which you have to do manually every time you book :(. Also, companion elites need to be on separate reservation. Can be a big problem if you also have an AS leg AS companion needs to be on same res to upgrade! What a mess.

  5. WE flew from LAX to Honolulu and it’s about 5 hours without snacks or sandwiches only drinks, they charge you for food. So I think I won’t fly with them.

  6. Andrew, no offense intended, but CLEARLY you are a VX virgin . . . I suppose it’s better late than never, but it’s also rather pointless unless the object of the exercise is to put another “notch on the bedpost,” so to speak, as you can add VX to the list of airlines you’ve flown.

    (In contrast, I suppose, I am all but an AS virgin having flown AS no more than a dozen times in my entire life, whereas I’ve been flying VX since they began flight ops in 2007 and have some 120 flights with them.)

    The RED system of IFE *is* unique in that — yes — you order food through the IFE. On every VX flight, whether it’s an hour flight (e.g.: SFO-LAX) or a transcon (e.g.: SFO-JFK), the in-flight crew comes through one time with the food/drink cart — not only to fulfill orders already placed through RED, but also to serve people unfamiliar with the food ordering system and/or those who haven’t gotten around to it yet. VERY FEW people I’ve ever flown with have “taken advantage” of the free food/alcohol when flying MCS. (As a VX Gold elite, I generally fly Main Cabin and get upgraded to MCS on just about every flight I take. ONE time, the upgrade didn’t go through and when I asked at the gate, the agent asked what seat I was in and then said, “You might want to keep it. All I have is a middle seat.” He was right; on a LAS-SFO hop, I’d rather have 9C¹ than 10E.)

    Further, when sitting in MCS (or F), all of the movies, etc. available through RED are free. When flying up and down the West Coast, that hardly matters (to me) — the flights are too short for a full-length movie anyway — but I’ve always been able to find some film worth watching on transcon flights (flew SFO-JFK in F [for an actual net cost to me of 7,692 Elevate points, plus $11.60 for TWO tickets] as recently as 9/22/17).

    In re: food, while I agree that, except in F, the offerings are not hot meals, I also find that food offered consistently better than comparable offerings on the US L3; certainly better than the peanuts/pretzels on WN; and better than AS, HA, or any other airline save B6. But surely this is an instance of “YMMV.”
    _______________
    ¹ 9C is in an Exit Row, same as 10E, but on an aisle rather than the middle. It’s not MCS, however, and the seats in row 9 don’t recline — not a problem for me, as I rarely recline my seat anyway on short flights. Did miss the free food, though.

  7. @Dmodemd —> a) I’ve never experienced a VX flight where the food ordering was “cut off after the first service,” so that’s a new one on me. I have experienced one flight where the RED system didn’t work properly at all during the flight (audio/video was intermittent, and the food ordering system never worked at all despite several reboots), and VX sent everyone a $50 travel credit without asking.

    b) I’ve never felt that the “tray on the bulkhead row is a little far away to work at comfortably with a laptop.” It’s certainly not too far away to eat off of, and that’s generally closer than I want to be to my laptop. FWIW, I much prefer that bulkhead tray to one taking up additional seat width by coming out of the armrest.

    c) Mergers NEVER run 100% smooth, and I too have hit an occasional “bump” in the road between AS and VX, but as I said above, I’ve never *not* received an upgrade to MCS, pre- or post-merger. Neither has my wife when on the same reservation, despite her being Elevate Silver and my being Elevate Gold.

  8. I did try the bulkhead on my last flight and as I feared, the table is too far away to work comfortably on the laptop. I was hunched over the whole time which my back didn’t appreciate. I agree it is much better than the solid seat dividers but for working I prefer the exit row.

    I have not encountered the food ordering cut off since the first time it happened to me but I do find my orders are often not delivered correctly the first time but it gets sorted out. I do appreciate the rapid arrival of the drink cart.

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