Major changes at Virgin America announced today

Photo of the Virgin Galactic aircraft taken from a Virgin America flight over San Francisco in 2011. (Photo: Chris McGinnis)

It’s about time! This morning Virgin America finally relased details of a new elite level of its Elevate frequent flyer program to The BAT. It has also created a new tier of coach seats for which it will charge a $20 premium.

Here’s my analysis of the new program:

Lack of an elite level frequent flyer program, common at all other airlines, is a big reason many BATs (Bay Area Travelers) have steered clear of Virgin in favor of competitors like United or American which offer special perks to those who fly a minimum of 25,000 miles per year.

Virgin’s previous claim that “all our flyers are elite” just did not cut it with those who were showing great loyalty to our hometown airline, but were getting little in return.

The new program breaks Elevate members into three tiers: Anyone who signs up for the program can be a RED member. Members who earn 20,000 points in a full calendar year earn SILVER status. Those who earn 50,000 points in a year get GOLD status.

Benefits kick in soon, too: Qualifying existing members will automatically receive Gold or Silver status as of today, based on flight activity over the past year, enabling them to use the new benefits as soon as August 8.  This applies to points earned on Virgin America, Virgin Atlantic and Virgin Australia.

Virgin America’s program is different from most major carrier programs because it allows members to earn points based on dollars spent versus miles flown. It’s unique in the way it offers flight awards, too—members use their points to “buy” tickets based on their market value. This means there are no frustrating capacity controls or black out dates—if you want a ticket to New York over Christmas when fares are sky high, you are going to have to fork over a lot more points than if you choose to fly there during the dead weeks in January or February when ticket prices plummet. But at least the opportunity is there and not blacked out.

Anyway….Before we look at the new elite level benefits, let’s examine Virgin’s new third tier of seats called Main Cabin Express, which should not be confused with its Main Cabin Select seats on bulkhead and exit rows in coach. Main Cabin Express seat are located just behind the Select seats in rows five, six and nine aboard its Airbus A319 planes and rows five, six, seven and nine aboard its A320s. In addition to a premium confirmed seat, those seated in Express seats get to board early and have reserved overhead bin space.

Gold and Silver members will now have complimentary access to Main Cabin Express seats at the time of booking.  All other passengers must now pay a $20 premium to reserve these seats ahead of time.

Elite members can now nab complimentary space-available upgrades to Virgin’s pricey Main Cabin Select seats (exit rows and bulkheads in coach—they come with free food and beverages). Silver members get a chance to grab one 12 hours prior to flight time; gold members get first dibs at 24 hours prior.

Elite level members willing to pay up for space-available upgrades to Virgin’s eight first class seats will now find that easier—the advance purchase upgrade window will be set a 24 hours prior to flight time for gold, 12 hours for silver and six hours for all others. (Upgrades to first class range from $39 to $299 depending on the price of your original ticket and the length of the flight.)

Elite members now get access to special, shorter elite airport security lines—a benefit sorely lacking from the Elevate program. Silver members get one free checked bag; Golds get three. Non-elites pay $25 per checked bag. Elites also get to board early and get special secret reservations assistance phone numbers.

Something unique: Elite members get a 25 percent discount off any coach class ticket once (silver) or twice (gold) per year.

Earning points will be easier for elites, too. Currently, members earn five Elevate points for every dollar spent on Virgin flights. Now, silver members will get a 25% bonus and golds will get a 100% bonus on Virgin flight purchases.

Virgin is now offering even more earning opportunities via social media applications. For example, elite members will now earn double points when “checking in” at airport terminals and gates on Foursquare, Facebook, or Instagram.

To promote all this, Virgin is giving away a free seat to outer space on Virgin Galactic to the Elevate member who earns the most points between August 8, 2012 and August 7, 2013. Note that Virgin Galactic is not yet operational, nor has it announced a start date for its proposed flights to outer space.

More program details here. 

Bottom line: These enhancements are great news for those who have been loyal to Virgin America and felt like that love was not being reciprocated. Access to elite security lines and free upgrades to Main Cabin Select seats are among my favorite new bennies.

So, what do YOU think of Virgin’s new elite program? Is this enough to make you more loyal? Please leave your comments below. 


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