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Will Virgin America Trump JetBlue and Southwest?

On Frequent Flyer Miles
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Editor's Note: This story was originally published on November 6, 2007. To see the most recent SmarterTravel articles on related topics, please click on any of the following links: airfare, frequent flyer, JetBlue, legroom, mileage redemption, onboard flight entertainment, On Frequent Flyer Miles, Southwest, Tim Winship, Virgin America.

The U.S. has a rich history of low-cost carriers redefining the travel-value proposition. Southwest taught the mainline airlines how to operate efficiently and profitably, and meet customers' expectations in the process. JetBlue expanded the Southwest playbook to include more legroom, seat-back TVs, and a generally upscale design that left most other carriers looking dowdy by comparison.

Most recently, Virgin America swaggered onto the travel scene with the implied promise of a genuine alternative to the mediocrity American flyers have endured in recent years. Its arrival raises the inevitable questions: Will Virgin America leapfrog JetBlue, the way JetBlue did Southwest? Can it live up to its own claim to be "a brand new airline inspired by the idea of changing domestic air travel"? Will it rewrite the rules of discount travel?

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One encouraging sign is the airline's chief, Fred Reid. During his tenure as president of Delta, Reid was responsible for the launch of Song, that airline's low-fare subsidiary. Song was a critical success, if not a financial one, boasting new aircraft, extra legroom (33 inches), and robust seat-back entertainment. It was, as I noted at the time, a better product than Delta offered its mainline customers, with lower prices. If Reid were to apply the same aggressive formula to Virgin America, the travel bar might be raised.

So, how does Virgin America stack up against Southwest and JetBlue? Here's a first look for frequent travelers.

Legroom

Virgin America could have earned the instant gratitude and loyalty of many travelers simply by offering an extra measure of legroom in coach. Unfortunately, the airline chose not to, spacing its coach seats with 32 inches of pitch. Compare that to 32 to 33 inches for Southwest, and an industry-leading 34 to 36 inches for JetBlue's seats. Strike one for Virgin America.

In-flight entertainment

While Virgin America is less than generous in providing legroom, the airline has invested heavily in another aspect of the in-seat experience: the individual entertainment system. Every coach seat has a nine-inch seat-back TV, allowing flyers to play video games, watch television shows and pay-per-view movies, listen to music, and shop.

JetBlue also boasts seat-back TVs, but with much less robust programming. Southwest offers nothing comparable, relying on jokey flight attendants to keep passengers entertained and amused. Virgin America wins this race hands down.

Frequent flyer program

JetBlue's TrueBlue is a decidedly mediocre program. Southwest's Rapid Rewards scheme has more earning and award opportunities than JetBlue's program, but it still falls short of the programs operated by the full-service airlines. Virgin America has a real opportunity to one-up the contenders in this area.

Unfortunately, full details of Virgin America's loyalty program, EleVAte, won't be released until early 2008. For now, the airline confirms that members will earn five points per dollar spent on published fares, and free round-trip award tickets will be available initially for "as little as 4,900 points" for a short-haul flight. That means members would have to spend a minimum of $980 before earning an award, requiring the purchase of approximately four tickets.

That's generous compared to redemption rates for Southwest, which awards a free ticket after eight round-trips, and JetBlue, which requires between nine and 25 round-trips before awarding a free ticket. But we'll have to wait to see the complete award chart before delivering a final verdict.

EleVAte will apparently trump the other programs in one key area: capacity controls. Where both Southwest and JetBlue limit the number of seats available for award redemption, Virgin America will allow program members to cash in points for any unsold seat.

Ticket prices

Virgin America has only been flying since August 8, so the fares currently available are more apt to be introductory prices than a true representation of the carrier's ongoing policies. The jury's still out on this one.

Imponderables

Among U.S. carriers, Southwest and JetBlue have managed to engender especially high levels of loyalty among their customers, albeit through rather different combinations of strengths. But so far, based on what I hear (or don't) from consumers, and the lack of buzz in the media, Virgin America hasn't managed to put together a sufficiently compelling package of features and benefits to generate the conspicuous traction enjoyed by the low-fare leaders.

Conclusion

Based on the information at hand, Virgin America matches up pretty well against JetBlue and, at least on paper, looks to have a slight edge over Southwest. But unless the company is willing to push the envelope more aggressively, it will fall short of achieving the status of a true breakout company. That's too bad for travelers hoping for a new era of value and comfort.

Bottom line: Virgin America is a welcome addition to the U.S. travel scene, but it's not yet a hands-down winner in its category.

 
 
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