R.I.P. The Virgin America Era

When I heard that Virgin America was being entirely folded into Alaska Airlines as part of the airline's acquisition, I actually felt a bit choked up. I hadn't expected to get emotional over an airline, especially one I hadn't flown since 2011 (I stopped flying the airline when I moved away from its hubs). Why do I care enough about Virgin America to shed a tear over its passing? I had to ask myself, not having been previously aware that I cared so much.

  Miss u

Miss u

My nostalgia for Virgin America has to do with a general nostalgia for what, as we recede further away from it, has become distinct in my mind as a kind of primitive accumulation period for today's culture: the late 2000s, which defined the next decade's worth of tastes but did so before they were entirely mainstreamed and capitalized. Virgin America launched in 2007 as something that seems kind of unimaginable now, ten years later: a luxurious, modern product for regular people. Today, anything that is self-consciously luxurious or modern is also self-consciously expensive: the expense has become part of the product, a guarantee that you are buying something higher end. Even regular venues like bars and pubs, that used to be self-consciously affordable, are now self-consciously pricey. Now we have the "gastropub" where fish and chips cost over $20 and beers have pedigrees. Spending money has itself seemed to become a kind of aspirational experience, a form of self-expression. 

It is no wonder then that Virgin America circa 2007 wouldn't make any sense now: you could fly from San Francisco to San Diego nonstop for $60 some days, in a clean and modern plane with leather-esque seats, drinking reasonably priced drinks, served by friendly and helpful flight attendants. The planes were full of young-ish people going somewhere fun, but the word "millennial" wasn't in heavy rotation yet and so the planes didn't feel like they were pens for some social media marketer's captive focus group. Simple luxury and value coexisted on Virgin America in the early years in a way no chief executive would allow today.

The luxuries that Virgin America offered to the customer-- clean space, comfort, efficiency-- can be had in 2017, but you have to pay a premium for them, because these days cleanliness and comfort are premium products. Virgin America, then, was a bright, shiny last glimpse of an America where every passenger could hope to be relatively comfortable-- just before the post 2008 economic rails diverged drastically into "private jet/first class" and "basic economy class".  Virgin America's dissolution, then, makes perfect if depressing sense, and this is also why the shiny red and white planes seem so cheerful and rare in retrospect. We'll miss u, Virgin America.