What’s the next best thing to business class?
After all, many of us can’t afford it, or don’t have enough frequent flier miles to upgrade. A coast-to-coast business fare can run about $2,000 or more. But let’s say you can spend around half that. That’s enough to buy certain comforts thanks to the advent of premium economy and new products like Mint, JetBlue’s more affordable stab at business class.
I recently conducted an unscientific test to see how to get the most deluxe domestic experience for around $1,000, traveling round trip between New York and Los Angeles. On one leg I flew JetBlue’s Mint; on the other, Virgin America’s Main Cabin Select. Would the perks be worth the splurge?
Mint seats start at $599 each way and include expedited screening, priority boarding, Wi-Fi, dozens of channels including DirecTV and SiriusXM Radio, food, an amenity kit, and lie-flat (up to 6 feet 8 inches long) seats. Each side of the aisle has one or two seats. The single seats are “suites” with doors. A door! Of course I reserved one — and it was the same price as any other seat in the Mint cabin.
Before takeoff a flight attendant offered a “RefreshMint”: honey-infused limeade with a sprig of mint. Refreshing indeed. Were it not 5:50 in the morning, I would have said yes to the vodka version.
While other passengers were boarding, an attendant showed me the suite’s features: two outlets alongside a wide work space beneath the windows; a compartment for easy-access to a handbag along with a pouch for a smartphone; an illuminated water bottle holder and a reading light with different levels of brightness; a box at my feet to stow shoes; a 15-inch monitor and a “glove compartment” below it to stash glasses and books; a coat hook; the control panel from which I could convert the seat into a bed; and an indicator to press if I wanted to be woken for meal service. It is at this point that one begins to feel embarrassed while other passengers galumph by with their luggage. But not so embarrassed that I couldn’t overcome the feeling by pushing a button with the word MASSAGE beneath it.
Once in the air, the attendant slid my suite door closed. It was an introvert’s dream. The seat had more privacy than my office cubicle.
Given JetBlue’s emphasis on low prices I did not expect high caliber amenities or service but I was surprised again and again. At one point, the flight attendant asked if I wanted anything from my bag in the overhead compartment. She brought a hot towel, a “snooze kit” with earplugs and a sleep mask as well as an amenity kit by Birchbox, the grooming product subscription service, that included facial cleansing wipes from La Fresh, moisturizing eye patches from Klorane, a face cream by Dr. Brandt Skincare and balm by Benefit Cosmetics.
Next came the food. “I have a tasting for you,” said an attendant. “It’s a feta cheese frittata,” she added as she placed it on a shelf along with a cup of Rishi jasmine green tea.
The courgette and feta frittata with harissa aioli was wonderfully spicy. How nice not to be served a bland dish at 36,000 feet. Just as I was scraping the little bowl clean the attendant returned. “May I set up your tray table?”
Meals on Mint are tapas-style. The brunch menu (“Nourishmint”) features small plates by the Manhattan restaurant Saxon & Parole. My favorites: the Santa Barbara smoked salmon (configured in the shape of a blooming rose) with dill sour cream and confit shallots, and the spicy eggplant shakshuka with feta cheese.
The only thing better than being given a lot of food is not being made to feel like a boar for eating it. The flight attendant leaned in and said she would be bringing over two desserts.
After the fruit and the organic spiced apple cider sorbet (meh) from Blue Marble Ice Cream in Brooklyn came the food coma. Time to test the bed. The seats truly lie flat and the firmness of the air cushions is adjustable. I was able to stretch out on my back, side, even my stomach. And with my door closed, no one could see.
My only quibble was with the Internet, or Fly-Fi as JetBlue calls it, which the airline’s website notes is in a Beta testing phase. I was not able to get online.
Later, a flight attendant handed me a cardboard cube the size of my palm. “Just to say thank you for flying with us today,” she said. Inside were two butter cookies and a brownie so tasty I looked up the bakery, Mah-Ze-Dahr Bakery, based in New York.
This stream of little surprises made flying fun again.
Virgin America’s Main Cabin Select
It isn’t fair to compare a domestic premium economy experience with Mint, a competitor to business class. For a less costly alternative, I turned to Virgin America’s Main Cabin Select because, while not new or cheap, it’s from an airline that trades on its particular brand of sex appeal with moody cabin lighting and touch-screens that allow for passenger-to-passenger messaging and cocktail ordering.
The company’s slick advertising is alluring, so the key to not being disappointed is to manage your expectations: What you are fundamentally paying for in Main Cabin Select is more legroom, and priority security and boarding, not pseudo business-class level service or amenities. I originally found a one-way fare for $398.10 which dropped as the departure time neared.
As the name suggests, Main Cabin Select comprises a few rows within coach, not its own cabin. My seat had an overhead bin but no additional work space, handy compartments or amenity kit. Wi-Fi was extra, but worked. Seats reclined but did not lie-flat (again, this is not business class), and there were three across, so there was little privacy and a lot of climbing over others or being climbed over. I missed my door.
The seat pitch is 38 inches — that’s six inches more than the rest of the seats in the main cabin. That makes a big difference and is the primary reason to opt for these seats. As with all Virgin coach seats, there’s entertainment in the form of television, movies and music and you can order food and drinks from your touch-screen. Sandwiches (free for Main Cabin Select fliers) included a Moroccan vegetarian wrap with lemon pesto pasta salad. None of the food options were warm. I could say the same about the service. For instance, when I told a flight attendant my power outlet didn’t seem to be working, she didn’t try to help. And when my entire row missed an announcement about not placing items in the deep seat pockets, another attendant came over and said, “You guys didn’t listen to what I said.” Again: Manage your expectations. You’re there for the legroom.
Flying Mint felt like being courted. Virgin’s Main Cabin Select felt like a waning long-term relationship — the attendants on my flight (as we know it’s luck of the draw) didn’t try as hard. That said, Mint is a newer contender. Let’s hope the romance lasts.