Results tagged “virginamerica”

A Little Bit of Control

October 19, 2012

When I used to fly a lot, people would ask me why I was such a big fan of Virgin America. Some of it is the usual stuff — they have wifi and power outlets, and travel to the cities I visit most often. But the crux of why I like their brand taught me a good bit more about the obligations companies have to their customers, and what institutions can do to be more humane in general.

The typical flying experience, especially for regular travelers, reduces adults who are used to a high degree of control over their lives to having fewer choices about their actions than a room full of kindergarteners. When we fly, we're told when we can sit down, when we can stand up, when we can listen to music, and we basically can't even get up to go to the bathroom without asking, just like a 5-year-old.

It's even more egregious an affront in the more minor areas: When we fly, we can't have a drink when we want.

Pushing Our Buttons

Virgin's touch-screens invert that model, as the best and most empowering experiences do. I can tap on the screen, order a drink, and a few minutes later, someone shows up with my beverage. There's no waiting for the cart, and it feels much more personal and accommodating to boot.

Now, obviously, this is only giving people the illusion of agency over their actions when they fly. We still can't stand up or sit down or read an ebook whenever we want. And frequent fliers are often among the worst-behaved, most over-entitled people in society, so we have to be careful exactly how much we want to indulge the desire to appease their every need.

But fundamentally, giving people a little bit of agency over the small actions that bring them joy can do a lot to mitigate the countless indignities that they're forced to suffer by big bureaucracies and inflexible institutions. An airline can't make the TSA's policies more effective or sane, but they can help us regain a bit of our feeling of control and dignity by assuming we can be trusted to ask for a can of Coke when we need one.

I'm trying to keep this small lesson in mind, as I think about the many big companies and institutions that visit unkindnesses upon us every day. There are accommodations they could all be making which could be as minor as letting us push a button to get a drink, but too often they get stuck thinking about the impacts to their own processes rather than how much those little things can mean to the people who are stuck in their machines.

Unsolicited Testimonial: Virgin America

December 5, 2007

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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.

Unsolicited Testimonials

December 3, 2007

This week I figured I'd try something a little bit different. I'm not usually one for product reviews, except for talking about different websites from time to time. But lately, I've been fortunate enough to find a bunch of really good experiences with various products and services I've used, so I figured I'd use my blog to talk about them.

(Note to marketers and PR people: See -- bloggers really do talk about things positively, not just when they're complaining! Also, don't send me your pitches -- every single one of these products and services is something I found on my own. And if you send me an unsolicited pitch about your product, I guarantee I won't mention it.)

For each of these products or services, I'll be offering up a brief description, an account of my experience, a list of gotchas to look out for, what it costs, and then some guidelines of how to judge if you'll like it. These fall under the headings of What It Is, The Experience, The Gotchas, What It Costs and Recommended If You Like.

I'll be reviewing these products:

Feel free to send me a link if you've written up anything about them that I should link to.

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