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Is It Better To Be Virgin or Take American from DFW to San Francisco? A Taste Test.

Andrea Grimes: A month ago, Virgin America began flying direct out of Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport to the West Coast -- specifically, Los Angeles and San Francisco. To announce their small-scale coup of local terminals dominated by American flights, Virgin invited horde of V- and not-so-VIPs for a barbecue lunch on a DFW tarmac and, later, inside a new Virgin America plane, where I got to visit with Virgin impresario Richard Branson amid mood lighting and in-seat entertainment. And while I was certainly impressed with the shiny newness of Virgin at DFW, I didn't take the carrier when I flew to San Francisco this past weekend. I took American, as I always do, benefiting from a free flight courtesy of my family's well-stocked magazine of frequent flier miles. My colleague Patrick Michels, however, did fly Virgin to and from San Francisco over the same weekend. And now, in this e-mail exchange, we ask: Is Virgin poised for takeover at DFW? In the battle for the West Coast, will Virgin win out with highfalutin design and amenities? Or is it all style and no substance?

Inside a Virgin American plane
Inside a Virgin American plane

Patrick Michels: The Virgin vibe was clear even on the ground in Dallas -- the crew was basically hitting on us all from the start. We may have arrived looking like the usual unwashed mass of passengers, but the sharply dressed gate agent summoned us aboard not by zone A, B or C, but as "Beautiful B's" and "Charming C's." It felt a little like Sir Richard himself was inviting every one of us -- grandmothers, lap babies and all -- to join him in his boudoir. On board, the dim pink and purple club lighting somehow made that prospect not even all that creepy. Flight attendants were chatty about things more interesting than the weather, and first class was separated by a tinted clear plastic wall -- not the old brown curtain that flashes quick looks at first class when the plane plows through a patch of clouds.

AG: I flew first class to San Francisco -- somehow, this didn't cost me extra AAdvantage miles, which was excellent -- but there was nothing particularly first class about my boarding experience. On the way back to Dallas, I was in steerage with my socioeconomic peers. It's nice being able to board early as a Priority AAdvantage member and get your rollerboard in (on the DEF side! wheels first!) pronto so you don't have to check your bag at the last minute. But I still boarded an aging, dim grey tube that smells like old turkey sandwiches and dry farts, regardless of seat placement or boarding status. And while my flight left on time very early Friday morning to San Francisco, I got a call from an American agent on Sunday morning letting me know my 4:30 p.m. flight had already been moved back to 5:50 p.m. We ended up taking off at 7:20 p.m. The pilot told us it was "obviously" because of the bad weather in San Francisco, but I think Patrick's plane, which was set to take off at the exact same time, encountered no such "obvious" weather. Is that right, Patrick? Does Virgin have magical weather?

PM: Seeding precision-directed hailstorms over other airlines' planes is just one of the many entertainment options available on my seatback touch-screen unit. We all had a good laugh as we outwitted each of the other planes in the takeoff line. Like you, I wasn't able to play anything on my iPhone during takeoff, but I was distracted the whole way by the free on-demand video of some stage-prowling biologist at a TED talk explaining how fungus-based packaging materials would help make the world a better place. Then I took a minute to mull it over while I assembled my own playlist of Willie Nelson and some British indie rock bands you probably wouldn't know.

AG: Once aboard, I paid American Airlines $12.95 and $9.95, respectively, for WiFi access on both flights. Their WiFi is called "GoGo," and has an adorable logo, so I briefly felt as if I were flying on a Euro-style party plane, at least until I tried to get to my credit card and remembered that "leg room," even in first class, is just a hilarious joke American Airlines plays on all its customers. From runway to 10,000 feet, I had no recourse but to read American Way, and none of my friends even write for that magazine any more, so who cares? Once aloft, I discovered that Internet access did not, on my iPad, include access to streaming video from Netflix, ABC or RedTube. Crock. Of. Shit. Luckily I packed my tablet full of Jeff Buckley, Beatles and a bunch of other crap I've listened to a thousand times.

PM: That's too bad, because Google had already paid for the privilege of giving me free WiFi on the Virgin flight -- I can only guess they recognized that as someone trend-conscious enough to fly Virgin America, I'm exactly the kind of guy they'd want using their search engine. Of course, I got lost -- as usual -- trying to decide between donating a heifer or a goat as a holiday gift to the village I'd adopted just after takeoff, and my laptop battery was nearly dead. So it was a huge relief when I discovered the three-pronged power outlet under my seat. I had to be careful not to jostle the napping infant next to me -- he actually went the whole three-plus-hour flight without making a sound, it was the greatest thing. I'm sure the kids on your flight comported themselves just as well.

AG: Flying up with the old money in American's first class cabin early on Friday morning, I didn't get too many kids besides the 9-year-old sisters flying solo across the aisle. They told the flight attendant that they were not particularly appreciative of their dad buying them a first class ticket, because that is how they always fly. On my trip back to Dallas, however, I made an appointment to get myself sterilized upon landing -- do you know how hard it is to find a doctor who'll do that after midnight because your flight's been delayed? -- after the entire disembarking process was held up by a youthful screamer who loved the American Airlines experience so much he actually refused to get off the plane. Fact is, regardless of age or temperament, pretty much everyone looks like a homicidal zombie when you have to beg to be allowed to keep the whole can of complementary tomato juice. Which is why I sprang for a plastic bottle of Merlot ($7) on my homebound trip. Of course, en route to San Francisco, I was riding with the aristocracy and was fed a cheesy omelet, bagel with cream cheese, several glasses of tomato juice and cups of coffee, all delivered breathlessly by a flight attendant who called me Ms. Grimes. Serving me was her greatest pleasure, besides serving the woman next to me, who carried a little bottle of vodka in her purse, as first classy people do.

PM: I ponied up seven bucks for my drink as well, but I've had more expensive beers at the Ghostbar -- and without such a spectacular view. While the high desert rushed by out my window, I took the last sip and found a message waiting for me in small lettering on the bottom of the drink -- my plastic cup evidently hoped that it had been as good for me as it was for them.

AG: I've never been so disappointed to have missed what sounds like an opportunity to star in one's own $440, three-and-a-half hour Austin Powers-meets-Truman Show airborne spectacular. My multitude of free and low-cost frequent flyer tickets will probably keep me going on American for the time being, but if I weren't such a huge celebrity to the folks at AA, I would absolutely, positively shell out the cash to fly Virgin. Their rates are seriously competitive. In fact, I spent a fair bit of time using my AA WiFi to look into Virgin's own frequent flyer program. I'd like to jump (air) ship.

PM: It's funny you mention the miles -- we made a surprise stopover in L.A., which had been my only real complaint until I realized it even got me a few hundred miles closer to a free ticket someday soon. Between the club atmosphere and the well-selected modern comforts around my seat, I guess Sir Richard wasn't just cracking a mile-high club joke in the pre-flight video when he leered at the camera and suggested that "everything is better at 35,000 feet."


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