Virgin America will upgrade first class. But probably not with flatbeds. Here's why.

 Virgin America has this first class seat on every plane. This is by design. Photo: Virgin America.

Virgin America has this first class seat on every plane. This is by design. Photo: Virgin America.

Virgin America expects to add a new first class seat with lots of new technological goodies within the next 18 months, the airline's CEO said last week at an investment conference. 

But will it be a flat bed?

Not likely, CEO David Cush said. He told investors the new seat will take the same footprint as today. For now, Virgin America has eight white leather recliners up front, each with a footrest and generous recline. That's an above average product for most domestic flights, but not as competitive on key transcontinental routes, like New York to L.A., where other airlines have flatbeds.

"We are very actively thinking about what we are going to do with first class and I would imagine it will be about a year and half before we will be ready to do it," Cush said March 8 at the J.P. Morgan Aviation, Transportation and Industrials Conference. "When we do it, we will retrofit all aircraft very quickly for a consistent product."

Virgin America will put the same seats on every plane. That means that, unlike JetBlue, American and United, Virgin America will not have special aircraft with fancier seats flying between New York and California. 

Some travelers are upset Virgin America does not have flatbed seats on coast-to-coast routes. But Cush said the airline is sticking with its current plan of a one-size-fits-all product for three main reasons.

1. Less complexity. Virgin America has about 60 planes. To match the product the other airlines have on California-New York routes, the airline would probably have to outfit 10-15 planes with special flatbed seats. That's costly. It also is not efficient, because it would be hard to use these special planes on other routes. "In the end, we are a low cost carrier," Cush reminded analysts.  

2. More private. Virgin America may not have flatbeds on the New York - L.A. and New York -San Francisco routes, but with only eight seats, it has a much smaller cabin. United, for example, has 28 business class seats on its premium Boeing 757s. 

"We think there are some benefits of our product to the other guys," Cush said. "The intimacy of our cabin and the fact that it is a protected cabin make it very different. No, it is not lie flat but the simple matter of the fact is that I think it's a much more relaxing product."

3. Consistency for customers. There's no doubt American, Delta, United and JetBlue have top-notch products on the key New York to California routes. But all four have either no first class or so-so recliner seats in first class on the rest of their planes. 

Virgin America thinks it has an advantage because it has the same premium cabin on every plane.

"[Customers] know that the product they get when the fly from JFK to San Francisco is going to be the same product that they get when they're going to Austin." 

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