Can Virgin America survive this onslaught?


The route between New York JFK and Los Angeles is the most prestigious in the United States, and has always been the place where airlines put their newest and best onboard products. Four of the five carriers serving the route have announced major changes to the aircraft plying this route over the last year (not including Qantas, whose onward service from LAX is not available for purchase, unless as part of an itinerary between the US and Australia).

United has removed First Class from its p.s. Boeing 757s, replaced the business class recliners with flat beds, and added standard economy seats in addition to its Economy Plus product. American has shifted to new, smaller aircraft, but increased frequency, and completely replaced its  old onboard products. JetBlue is adding a flat-bed product to new aircraft coming online. Delta has added larger, internationally configured aircraft to the route, and replaced the business class product on the narrowbodies that it uses. By July 31, 2014 all these equipment changes will have filtered through the schedules. Overall capacity will have dropped by 4.5%, but premium seat capacity will have jumped by 12.7%. The percentage of premium seats on the route will go from 14.3% to 16.8%. The percentage of premium seats that are lie flat goes from 9.4% to 96%.


The effects of this shift will be very interesting to watch as older carriers have moved to reduce operating costs through various strategies. United has added almost 30% more seats per plane. Delta has utilized larger planes that are optimized for routes from the East Coast to Europe, on a flight that’s almost as long. American has dropped its big, old, heavy, maintenance intensive planes and replaced them with newer ones that are smaller and cheaper to operate. It has also drastically increased the percentage of (highly profitable) premium seats on these new planes. JetBlue has looked for new revenue opportunities through the addition of its Mint lie-flat product. In addition to all this, United has almost doubled its capacity from Newark to LAX, now with 13 flights daily, leaving on the hour.

One nagging question is this – how will Virgin America fare in the face of this type of competition? In 2012, the carrier – which is known for having set the standard for service on this route – slashed its order for A320s from 30 to 10, and scheduled delivery in 2015/16, while also deferring first delivery of a 30-strong order for the re-engined A320neo until 2020. One industry observer opines, “VX is not long for this world, especially if they don’t upgrade their front cabin. Pretty sure they’re worth less than their slots are right now. I think they would do very well as an Etihad Regional, mind…imagine how many toys the legacies would throw out of the pram if THAT happened!”

We do know that Virgin America is no longer interested in discussing its plans for inflight entertainment on the new A320s scheduled for delivery in 2015/16 (the carrier’s current ‘Red’ system was developed by Panasonic Avionics and software firm CoKinetics with plenty of steer from Virgin America, which is still trying to patent elements of the solution).

In 2011, Virgin America made a huge splash with the announcement that it would offer Lufthansa Systems’ wireless IFE solution – streamed to both seat-back screens and passengers’ PEDs – when it took delivery of the A320s. That IFE announcement dealt a blow to industry heavyweight Panasonic, which had vied for the business, but it offered hope to IFE start-up companies the world over.

A Virgin America spokesman now says, “In 2012, as you know, we deferred our Airbus order by a few years, with new deliveries resuming in 2015. We announced then that the deferrals would slow our plans a bit with respect to the IFE, but we are still actively working on the next iteration of Red, which we plan to debut when the deliveries begin arriving in mid-2015. Unfortunately, I can’t say more on specific plans or configurations/systems at this point other than that, but we’ll have more to say on the subject in the third or fourth quarter of this year and will make sure you are among the first to be briefed.”

Lufthansa Systems senior VP BoardConnect Norbert Mueller tells us that Virgin America “is definitely still talking to us”, though he adds, “I can’t tell you if it will lead to a solution.”

[Notes about above chart] As American is the only carrier now offering  a dedicated first class, Premium includes First and Business class, while Economy includes both standard economy and extra leg room economy products.

Due to the nature of the transcon market, where carriers tend to put premium products more closely resembling international offerings, identifying products as first or business becomes challenging. International first class is above international business class, which is rated higher than domestic first. Given the seat width, pitch and level of service associated Virgin America’s premium cabin, we consider it greater than a domestic first class product and much closer to an international business class. This is what we classified every other premium product as, with the exception of American’s transcon first class, which is comparable to an international first class seat.