A few months ago Virgin America opened up a SFO-YYZ route, and I was immediately asked by American colleagues why on earth I’d choose to fly any airline other than Virgin, and why I kept booking on Air Canada. Even setting aside the benefits I reap flying Air Canada as a Star Alliance Gold member, I couldn’t imagine what it was that Virgin was doing which made the air travel experience so much better that everyone talked about it as if the airline was reinventing the airline passenger experience. So when an opportunity presented itself (ie: I had to fly on short notice, and Air Canada seats were priced very dear) I decided to take it, and this morning found myself on VX203 from Toronto to San Francisco.
Buying a ticket
I kind of spoiled this in the preface, but when booking just a little more than a week in advance, Air Canada and its Star Alliance partners couldn’t get me a round trip Toronto-San Francisco direct for less than $1600. Virgin America’s initial fare was quoted at $530, and got lower and lower during the online purchase process, eventually ending at $495.
Winner: Virgin America
Checking in online
I went to the website and checked in online. I’m more used to the Air Canada site, but I also find their process a little more straightforward than Virgin, which makes a big show of telling you about all the features of the seat classes that you aren’t sitting in. The Virgin America site is way more modern though, and feels slick. Still, basically the same.
Boarding the aircraft
The staff call people who need extra assistance, then first class, then row and seating numbers. I can only presume that the Virgin America frequent flyers with status are automatically put into “Seating Group A,” just like Star Alliance Gold members.
Then you walk down a runway and hope that there’s overhead space. The Virgin America boarding cards and row indicators actually make it a little more difficult to find your seat, but only barely, so …
Interior Decor and Seat Comfort
Air Canada recently refitted all its planes with a bright new interior featuring light blues and greens, and bright LED lighting that can be adjusted throughout the flight. Virgin America goes the other way, with dark purples and black accents, highlighting the white Lucite that encases the back of each seat. The result is that stepping onto a Virgin America plane feels like stepping into a nightclub, and stepping onto an Air Canada flight feels like stepping onto a tram in some European city.
The seats on the two aircraft are essentially identical. The leather Virgin America seats look fluffier than they feel, and the Air Canada seats are more comfortable than they look. The biggest difference is that Air Canada offers an extra inch of seat pitch (32″ vs 30″-31″) and has narrower armrests, making the seats feel wider as well. Every so often the Virgin America rows have a bit of the footspace taken away to make room for their digital entertainment system; this only happens in one row on Air Canada.
Both airlines offer seat back pouches, thank god.
Winner: Air Canada, by a 1″ nose
Preparing for takeoff
Virgin America’s in flight announcements reminded me of WestJet or Southwest, with a bit of tongue in cheek playfulness about how it’s implausible that someone’s unaware of how to operate a seatbelt. Another benefit over Air Canada is that the announcements were in English only, and when they came they were prefaced with “Pardon the Interruption.” There was a real sense that they understood that passengers didn’t pay money to listen for a lecture.
Air Canada, on the other hand, seems to understand what eBook readers are, and doesn’t insist that they be turned off during takeoff. I was a little astonished that the otherwise more-modern Virgin America cabin attendants were so adamant that I had to turn off my Kobo eBook Reader.
On both airlines, the audio-visual system was available during preparation for and throughout takeoff. On both airlines we were subjected to captive advertising after a safety video. On both airlines we were assured that safety was their number one priority.
Winner: people who don’t know how to operate a seatbelt
In flight service
The Virgin America “RED” seatback systems are really impressive. Feature-rich (who the hell needs seat-to-seat chat?) and responsive, they smartly give you the ability to order up entertainment, food, and drinks. I really liked how the cabin attendants did one pass with the drinks trolley, and then after that you had to order up refreshments through your seatback system and it would just appear in a few moments. Very, very slick.
Air Canada has a more conventional “two trips of the trolley, otherwise hit the call button” system along with frequent passes through the airplane with water. This means that the aisles are always full of cabin attendants, which is definitely a disadvantage compared to the Virgin America system.
Both airlines offer buy on board for food and drink (Virgin has an easier fulfillment system with the credit card readers at your seat) but I found Air Canada’s selection to be a little broader and more robust. The audio and video offerings were basically the same, but Air Canada’s entertainment is all included in your airfare where Virgin America asks you to pony up $8 to watch a movie on a low dpi LCD with a bad refresh rate. As my friends said: “that’s what iPads are for, dude.”
Finally, Virgin America has WiFi, where Air Canada has the promise of WiFi.
Winner: tie; both offer good in-flight service, and while Virgin America is slicker in execution, it felt like everything came with a slightly-too-high pricetag
Air travel isn’t really a fantastically fun thing to do, so what I look for is an airline that makes me feel comfortable, cared for, and tries to work through the hardest parts. Both Air Canada and Virgin America are definitely striving for that, although in very different ways. Air Canada’s model doesn’t scale across passengers as well as Virgin America’s, but the latter always feels like I’m as valuable as the amount I’m willing to spend in-flight. On Air Canada I feel like a guest, on Virgin America I felt like a customer in a lounge with great service.
Winner: tie again, no clear advantage
Don’t fly United.
Seriously, I think the reason all my American colleagues were so excited about Virgin America was that they’d been forced to fly United all this time. Air Canada has quietly become a very comfortable, service-oriented airline in the past three to four years, and I didn’t see huge differences in the flying experience between the two carriers, just small ones. Air Canada continues to be more “full service” and Virgin America more “a la carte.” It’s not the second coming, but it’s a great alternative when Air Canada gets too costly.
Update: for an example of an airline that is trying to really change the flying experience, you should try Porter Airlines. They use small planes on short routes only, and that allows a far more personal touch in the service, and a focus on humane and comfortable environments.