Virgin America dismisses need for A320 cabin revamp

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JetBlueʼs debut of its new Mint premium product could not have happened at a worse time for rival Virgin America, which reported a $22 million first quarter loss just as Mint was beginning to make the San Francisco-based carrier’s once lauded onboard product look dated.

Mintʼs creation and development was driven by JetBlueʼs conclusion that it was losing lucrative customers on routes from New York to Los Angeles and San Francisco due to a lack of a distinctive premium product.

Even though JetBlue was likely losing more corporate accounts to American and Delta in those high yielding transcontinental markets, long-time industry consultant Robert Mann believes Mint will force Virgin America to contemplate a cabin-wide product refresh, not just a first class revamp. All of Virgin Americaʼs competitors now offer lie-fat seats on service from New York to Los Angeles after JetBlue introduced Mint on flights from JFK to Los Angeles earlier this month. Mint features 16 full-flat seats, four of which are closed-off private suites.

Mann says some passengers complain that the seat pitch in Virgin Americaʼs economy class is “punishing”, though the pitch, as billed by the carrier, is 32 inches. In comparison, the seat pitch for JetBlue’s “core” economy class seats on the A321s that feature Mint is 33 inches. American Airlinesʼ transcontinental A321s feature 31-32-inch pitch in economy, and Deltaʼs pitch on Boeing 757s and 767s operated on transcontinental flights from New York offer a 31-33-inch pitch.

Virgin America essentially has to “up its game”, says Mann, who believes “trendy may no longer carry the day” for the airline. Obviously a product refresh requires investment, and given that Virgin America has only been profitable a single year in its seven-year history, its resources for a revamp may be limited.

Mann believes Virgin America has two clear options in crafting a response to the new transcontinental product battle – “bite the bullet and do it [a product refresh] or walk away from the market”.

JetBlue plans to debut Mint on its JFK-San Francisco flights in October. Those routes were among Virgin Americaʼs original markets when it debuted in 2007, and remain a critical part of the airlineʼs network.

Virgin America IFEVirgin America is staunchly defending its product positioning, arguing it offers a “consistent experience across all routes and flights – something our competitors canʼt match”, says an airline spokeswoman.

The airline also believes that even though its first class seats “do not have a near lie-flat experience, for most business travelers not flying on a red eye, we believe the pitch and ergonomic design of our seats are the most comfortable in the skies”.

Virgin America also stresses that its fleet is “outfitted with a full First Class on every aircraft… not just on a handful of planes…we are the only carrier in US with onboard Wi- Fi, in-seat power outlets and seat-back IFE in every aircraft in our fleet,” the airlineʼs spokeswoman says.

For the moment JetBlue plans to feature Mint on 11 aircraft by the first quarter of next year. As more Mint-equipped aircraft join the carrierʼs fleet, questions are arising over the payback time for JetBlue from its investment in Mint.

“It depends on the discount they offer their corporate customers versus the retail price,” says Mann. JetBlueʼs one-way Mint fares run as low as $599 each way; but Mann assumes the airline ultimately wants to garner a one-way price point in the high three digits or low four digits. “That would still be less relative to other carriers,” he concludes.

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