Sunday, October 14, 2007

Virgin America

I flew Virgin America for the first time on my last trip to DC. Is it an incredible new experience?

Well, no. It's a budget airline. But they do things a little differently, wrapping their experience in some nice design:
  • Many of the airports I've flown in and out of on Virgin (SFO, JFK, Dulles) use the "International" terminal. These are usually nicer and less-crowded than the usual domestic or commuter terminals. That, coupled with Virgin's British legacy immediately "classes up" their image. The SFO International terminal is beautiful compared to the dumps the other ones have become.
  • The self-check machines are fancy touch screens on nice tables, with concealed printers. They put vases of fresh flowers on top. This has the advantage of making them very easy to find as well as immediately changing your perception of the airline. Airports are generally incredibly sterile industrial environments, all vaulted concrete and steel. Flowers immediately make you relax and feel different about things.
  • The ticket counter areas have some carpet mats, and friendly staff dressed in black. They smile a lot and politely ask if they can help. Some are even out from behind the shield wall of the counters.
  • The boarding passes are nice cards printed on substantial paper. A minimum of cryptic junk. Large, readable type. They fit in a back pocket without folding.
  • Boarding times are at least 10-15 minutes more optimistic than the actual boarding time, presumably to minimize the number of people boarding late. Smart.
  • The planes themselves are brand new. Black carpet on the floor, white walls, and violet blue mood lighting instead of the usual white industrial fluorescent gothic. It's probably just gels over the same ol' tubes, but it does look very nice.
  • Transparent violet dividers. Pleasant and "modern".
  • Seat backs are hard white shiny plastic. They remind me of Kubrick's "2001" space sets. They seem to get marked up and scratched easily, but when the mood lighting is on they pick up the purple nicely.
  • Seats are pretty close together, on par with any other old airline. Definitely not as nicely spaced as JetBlue or Alaska.
  • Seatbacks feature Virgin's special entertainment system, called "RED". Has TV channels, "premium" (i.e. you pay) TV, movies (you pay)...and some other fun stuff - built-in video games (which I've seen people of all ages play), seat-to-seat IM (this will never get used!), and a built-in live Google Map that shows where you are, how fast you're going, etc.
  • RED also features the food-and-drink ordering system. Touch what you want, swipe your credit card (cash is not accepted, only credit cards), and they bring it right to your seat. When you want. This is very nice.
  • Only problem is that RED is flaky. It worked great on this flight, but on later flights it was either not working at all or had particular failures and required several "resets" per seat.
  • Seats are (probably fake) leather. Black for coach, white for first class. First class looks very cushy.
  • Safety presentation is by video rather than attendant. It's reasonably entertaining, which is to say it is like Chapelle's Show compared to the normal presentations. A bit of humor, all done with animation.
  • Prices are quite affordable.

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