MIAMI — As airlines have made major upgrades to their premium cabins for transcon flights, eyebrows are being raised as Virgin America chooses to add pillows instead of putting lie-flat seats in first class as its competitors have done. The battle is being played out on flights between JFK Airport and Los Angeles International and San Francisco International airports.

First class seats on a Virgin America A320. (Credits: Virgin America)
First class seats on a Virgin America A320. (Credits: Virgin America)

American Airlines uses a three-class Airbus A321T for its transcon service. The aircraft offers fully lie-flat first and business class, with all-aisle access in first.

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First class cabin on American Airlines’ Airbus A321T. (Credits: Airways)

United Airlines uses a Boeing 757 to operate its  p.s. Premium Service flights. The carrier recently reconfigured its fleet, replacing its angled lie-flat and recliner seats with full 180-degree flat-bed seats and complimentary duvet and pillow.

United p.s. Service First Class Seat Info-Graphic. (Credits: Airways)
United p.s. Service First Class Seat Info-Graphic. (Credits: Airways)

Delta Air Lines is using three Boeing 757s and two international 767-300ERs with lie-flat seats in BusinessElite between New York and Los Angeles. The carrier’s 767 transcontinental product features updated interiors including 26 full flat-bed BusinessElite seats with direct aisle access at every seat in a 1-2-1 configuration. The 757 transcontinental aircraft includes 16 full flat-bed seats arranged in a 2-2 configuration in the BusinessElite cabin.

Delta Air Lines’ transcontinental BusinessElite cabin on a Boeing 757. (Credits: Delta Air Lines)
Delta Air Lines’ transcontinental BusinessElite cabin on a Boeing 757. (Credits: Delta Air Lines)

And JetBlue listened to its customers who wanted an upgraded experience on the carriers flights from New York and Long Beach and San Francisco by offering its Mint product on an Airbus A321. The Mint product features four closed suites and 12 business class seats, all with lie-flat beds.

JetBlue business class “mini-suite” with sliding door. (Credits: JetBlue)
JetBlue business class “mini-suite” with sliding door. (Credits: JetBlue)

Henry Harteveldt, founder and travel industry analyst and advisor for the Atmosphere Research Group, said while he doesn’t disagree with Virgin America CEO David Cush’s decision, he is concerned. “I’m concerned because on transcon flights, a lie-flat seat is now the standard,” he said. “I understand why they’re not investing in lie-flat seats because that costs money, but I’m concerned that Virgin America will become even more of a laggard than it already is.”

Pillows are nice, said Harteveldt. “But when you’re competing against four airlines with compelling premium experiences, including lie-flat seats, it’s not enough,” he said. “Virgin America may not like the fact that lie-flat is now the norm in transcon premium cabins, but it can’t ignore it or hide from it.”

Virgin America already has a limited route network and schedules, said Harteveldt. “I’m concerned that it may be forced into more of a price discounter in order to maintain their market share,” he said. “The market has moved on. They have gone, in seven years, from a leader to a laggard, and it’s not a good position for them to be in.”

One can argue whether lie-fat seats are needed on transcons, even on red eyes, said Harteveldt. “But doesn’t matter, because United, Delta, JetBlue and American all have true lie-flat seats. Anyone can match a pillow and a gourmet meal,” he said. “Virgin America needs to figure out what they want to be as a business, because they are up against strong, ably run competitors.”