Unsolicited Testimonial: Virgin America

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What It Is: Virgin America, the latest (and greatest) low-cost, low-hassle air carrier in the United States. It's an American corporation, though of course it shares its branding and company attitude with Virgin Atlantic.

The Experience: It's hard not to feel like Virgin America is all-but-explicitly trying to be Austin Powers Airline. Just like the movies, despite our better judgment, it works and it's downright entertaining.

The fundamentals from a business standpoint are a lot like JetBlue or even Southwest Airlines. You don't have to buy tickets a million years in advance, the website is really good at helping you do things like picking seats, and the attitude of the marketing, staff, and overall experience is friendly and fun.

I generally fly on major carriers -- one of the things that's really distinguished old-school airlines like United (which I usually fly) from the upstarts is that loyalty is rewarded. Frequent flier programs are kind of half-assed, even at an otherwise-great airline like JetBlue. Perhaps as a result, the low-cost carriers are also usually full of what I call "amateurs" -- families travelling on vacation, or those insufferable people who stumble through airports looking as if they've never heard of air travel before. For those of us who fly a lot, having amateurs in the way when you're trying to get to a meeting or an event is one of the worst things about flying.

Unlike JetBlue, Virgin is launching with a frequent-flier program from day one. It's not clear whether it'll be a substantial perk on top of their experience, but it's definitely worth watching.

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Virgin makes up for any overentitled frequent-flier concerns. The planes are fancy as hell -- snazzy, fancy, brand-new Airbus 320s. These are the same planes that JetBlue flies, but apparently the state of the art at Airbus has advanced a good bit in the past few years. Every seat is covered in leather. The planes are noticeably quieter than the notoriously loud cabin-noise standard set by other A320s. The interior lights on the VA planes are also, rather famously, a pink-purple color. I'm a Prince fan -- this is exactly the sort of over-the-top ridiculousness I appreciate.

And Virgin is rather explicitly going for the geek audience. The touch-screen in flight entertainment screens at each seat, which VA calls "Red", are really well executed. The navigation for the system is pretty good, if a bit sluggish, but you can use it to watch first-run movies (for a fee) or student movies (which they should pay you to watch) or a bunch of the most popular cable networks. There's a really extensive library of songs that you can make playlists from, and the collections of songs for each of the artists seem to actually be curated by someone with some taste. I listen to mostly pop, rock, soul, and hip hop, and I could probably get the whole way across the country without having to take out my iPod.

How geeky is VA? They not only invited bloggers on their inaugural flight, the in-flight TV lists BoingBoing.tv as a premium video option. Gotta give them points for that.

The touchscreen perks don't stop there. VA's US CEO is Fred Reid, the same guy who launched Song at Delta. Song was perhaps best described as "JetGreen", a major carrier's attempt to clone the success of JetBlue. Delta has kept the Song planes, and some even still have the Song livery, and the experience on those flights is terrific. I loved it for the great digital seatback system, complete with the ability to play a trivia game against your fellow passengers. (Fast Company did a great interview with Reid with more info, though Reid has since been required to step down as part of Virgin's certification with the Department of Transportation.)

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VA doesn't miss a beat in bettering Song. Every armrest has a tethered double-sided handset. One side has a game pad and good (old-school Nintendo-style) controller buttons so you can play a bunch of simple arcade games for free, including Doom. The other side is, incredibly, a tiny little full QWERTY keyboard. That's so you can use the in-flight chat room to talk to your fellow passengers, and the menus promise you'll even be able to email, send SMS messages, and surf the web in the future. Kickass!

Every seat has a full, three-pronged power outlet. There's powered USB ports for charging devices that use that method. And then there's the best use of the digital technology onboard: You can order food and drinks whenever you want.

It's a tiny little thing, but choosing when and what you eat is such a great example of undoing the powerlessness that makes air travel so stressful. Not having control over when you can sit or stand, when you can listen to music or make a phone call, or even when you can go to the bathroom is one of the biggest causes for people flipping out when they're flying. Add to that the capricious nature of airport security, and the fact that many frequent fliers are business people used to being control freaks at work, and it's a wonder there isn't more air rage.

So, the simple fix: I can make a few taps on the screen in front of me and they bring me a cup of tea. Goddamn, that's civilized. VA has also hinted that they'll be adding to their menu (all food costs on Virgin) with some higher-end options that might run as much as $20, but won't be shitty airline food. I think the logic there is perfect -- I'll gladly pay a few extra bucks for something edible.

In short, Virgin executes perfectly on the classic low-cost carrier model that makes airlines like JetBlue so beloved, with even more in the way of personality and panache. The amenities make coach flights on VA feel like business class does on other airlines, and the promise of ongoing improvements means they might even extend their lead.

(Thanks to Alanna Spence for the photos.)

The Gotchas: Virgin America doesn't fly many places. I tend to bounce back and forth between New York and San Francisco, so that works fine for me, but it could be a big concern if you're elsewhere. Also, Virgin isn't the rock-bottom cheapest airline around, so if you're really price-sensitive, you can probably go to Kayak.com and find a better deal, especially if you know your travel plans well in advance.

What It Costs: Flights are surprisingly affordable -- a cross-country round-trip flight, purchased on short notice, was about $500. In flight meals are additional, and priced a little under $10.

Recommended If You Like: Song Airlines, shagging, Richard Branson, mood lighting, Mark Frauenfelder


This post is one of a series of unsolicited testimonials. Please view that introductory post for more background information.

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