I spent way to much time on the road in June flying back and forth from the west coast 3 times in 4 weeks. Thanks to a combination of short notice trips, flight credits and great fares I ended up in first class on all 6 flights on 3 different carriers. I’ll detail each experience, include photos and deliver a verdict. NOTE: For 7 years I was a United 1K flying ~200K miles a year, the majority of it in domestic first class and international business class.
Washington Reagan National Airport (DCA) to LAX to DCA
Hard to ever turn down a flight from DCA to the west coast. Avoiding Dulles at any cost should be all travelers’ goals. It was my first time on Alaska Airlines and I was looking forward to flying them after hearing friends’ reviews who live in Seattle.
The seat was not super comfortable. It was hard and the recline was limited.
WiFi was great. It was faster than I had experienced on Virgin America and the cost was less than VA. The inflight entertainment was on a digi handheld player. The content was decent, the device cumbersome but was better than watching an overhead monitor on a United 757. The biggest downfall is that there are no outlets at the seat making it impossible to charge your device. It is strange that you can offer WiFi but no outlets. My laptop barely made it powered on the outbound flight.
Alaska still hands out menus on the flight. The outbound breakfast was a nice change from typical the egg hockey puck on United and was plated very nicely. The coq au vin was a hearty lunch.
Crew on both flights were happy to be there, professional and worked the entire time. They addressed each passenger by last name and thanked us all for our business.
Washington Dulles (IAD) to SEA to IAD
Back in a familiar setting with my family as we traveled out to Seattle to see friends. The outbound flight was on a 757 and the return was on a former Continental 737-800. The contrast was quite stark in the experiences on each flight. And that sums up one of my bigger gripes with United is the inconsistencies.
The 757 seat was leather and still was super comfortable for me. Perhaps my body has adapted to the seat after all the miles I have previous flown on United. The 737-800 seat was nearly identical to the Alaska Airlines seat and by the time I got off the plane by back hurt.
United has come in last place on technology for years and nothing changed on this trip. The 757 had overhead screens and no power adapters. The 737-800 at least had power at the seat and DirectTV making the flight bearable, but no WiFi on any United flights kills any productivity.
Breakfast on the outbound was the predictable hockey puck, highlighted with horrible coffee. Why did United get rid of Starbucks? I am not a coffee junkie nor a Starbucks addict but what they are serving on United is awful.
On the return flight we had a pasta dish that I remember having in coach in 2005. It amazes me this is what United is giving to paying customers (I was not one of them on this flight) in first class.
Though I did get an ice cream sundae for dessert.
United’s biggest inconsistencies start with their crews. The outbound flight crew was impatient, did the bare minimum and disappeared as soon as the trays were picked up only to reappear right before landing. The return crew was terrific. They went out of their way to help when my daughter wanted a snack, since she could not eat the airline food due to allergies.
Washington Dulles (IAD) to SFO to IAD
I want to like Virgin America. All the hipsters love them but I can’t help but feel they try so hard to be cool that they forget some basics.
The seat on both flights was easily the most comfortable. Built in lumbar massage, foot rest, not bad.
Virgin America was the only airline that hit all three checkboxes on my must haves. WiFi, power outlets, and live tv. The price of WiFi was more expensive on Virgin than Alaska by $3.00.
This is always where Virgin loses me. They tend to try to hard to cater the flight with fancy, hip food which you can’t pull off on an airplane. If they only could keep it simple like Alaska did with their breakfast. This flight I settled for the simple fruit plate with granola which was really good.
Both crews were average. Every Virgin America crew I have had does their job, keeps everyone well fed and happy but they are not the most personal. I don’t need small talk, or to be addressed formally, but the crews I had this trip were like automatrons.
And the winner is…
For people who care about miles and status, it is a no brainer, Alaska wins hands down. Virgin America has a weak loyalty program called Elevate, but Alaska allows you to earn miles on Delta, American and has their own program.
If you don’t care about miles, then Virgin wins in a squeaker. Better seats and better technology put it ahead of Alaska. United is not even on my radar at this point. I am done flying them. Personally, I dislike flying from Dulles, so when Virgin adds a flight from National Airport later this summer to SFO it puts them over the top. Power at the seat and live TV with the added convenience of National make going to SFO a breeze for me.