I originally posted this on another forum but thought others may enjoy it here.
As a fan of Virgin Atlantic I had been following the launch of Virgin America very closely. When things finally started coming together earlier this year I was hoping they would start up in time for me to fly with them on a trip to the west coast, but that didn’t happen in time and their cabin video tease (to gather public support for their approval) only made me want to fly with Virgin more.
When Virgin started selling tickets in July, I originally thought about going from New York to LA
or San Francisco, but then realized I could actually fly LAX
during a week I would be in LA
. The schedule could not have been tighter: their first full day of scheduled operations would be my last day in LA
This turned out to be much more better all around than flying from New York: the flights would be significantly cheaper, I would have to spend less time in the air, and I would be able to fly them a lot sooner than if I flew from New York.
Thursday, August 9, 2007
Scheduled Departure Time: 4:00 P.M.
Actual Departure Time: 4:13 P.M.
Scheduled Arrival Time: 5:20 P.M.
Actual Arrival Time: 5:25 P.M.
Flight Time: 55 minutes (cruising at 38,000 feet)
I arrived at LAX
at 2:25 at terminal 6, where Virgin operates from.
The empty check-in area was very modern and set the stage for what Virgin America would be like.
There was one large desk with four minimalist white kiosks for “Guests” (Virgin’s word for passengers) flying in economy and a smaller desk with two kiosks for Guests in first class.
I was browsing the seat selection options to see how full my flights were when the kiosk stopped responding. After waiting a short while, I just switched to another kiosk and there were no further problems. A Virgin IT
specialist was on hand and able to re-boot the other kiosk.
Boarding passes popped out of a corner and when I first saw them, I thought they were very odd in shape, but I quickly came to see how they were innovative and a major “breakthrough” in boarding pass design.
The boarding pass comes out of the slot
Front and back of Virgin boarding passes
Most boarding passes are long and stick out of wherever they are put: shirt pockets, books, passports, etc. but these were just the right shape to give them bulk (unlike those thin receipt-like papers a lot of LCCs use) yet small enough to comfortably fit in a pocket (but not get lost). While this is no major thing, it is just one of many small things that add up.
Security was a breeze and I was off to gate 67B.
Gate counter at one of Virgin’s LAX
At the gate (which is surrounded by United gates) was “Air Colbert” in the final departure stages.
“Colbert” taking off
Virgin’s scheme is very simple (possibly the simplest in the US) but the white paint on the fuselage did seem to glitter, sort of like Virgin Atlantic’s 2000 scheme “Silver Dream Machine”.
Colbert pushed back at 3:00 and at 3:15 my aircraft N624VA (no name) pulled up, but boarding did not start until close to 3:45.
Walking on board was like stepping inside a club. First you see funky purple light coming from inside the plane, then you see the flight attendants dressed in red and black.
The female flight attendants wore a red vest with a high collar over a white shirt with a black skirt while male flight attendants wore black pants and a full-length button-down shirt. The pilots also wore all black but had red ties.
Turning into the cabin are purple Plexiglas dividers at the front of the plane that start the 8-seat first class cabin featuring all-white leather seats with lots of leg room. Virgin’s domestic first class was more like international business class.
Next is the economy cabin in a sharply contrasted all-black leather seating that looks very hip and features plenty of leg room. The seats were very comfortable and supportive, especially in the lower back region. There were also adjustable headrests.
The details are some of the most interesting features: the seatbelts are polished metal and the front of seats have a white ultra smooth plastic feel yet do not look cheap.
Also, the interiors of the windows are light blue.
People were saying things like “This is so cool!” and one person even said (in a good way), “I feel like I’m in a space cabin.” The flight was about 80% full, which I can only imagine is great for an airline’s first full day of scheduled operations. (On Wednesday, Virgin mostly flew celebrities and the media around.) Most of the people on board looked urban and hip, and under 40.
Dance music was lightly playing on the PA, and while the flight attendants were preparing the rear galley, they put up a gray/black curtain that was semi-transparent.
At 4:05 we were waiting on catering to finish up and finally the main cabin door closed at 4:13, 13 minutes late.
Interestingly, the entire Red entertainment system worked fully during boarding, taxi, and takeoff (many other IFE systems are not started until after take off). One feature of the Red system I like is a physical button that switches to the map if doing anything else on the system, or switches back to what you were doing if looking at the map. They use Google Maps, which had some minor issues like saying arrival was at four in the morning, and the weather was 3.1999999993 degrees outside.
Every seat has a remote (like for international planes) for the Red entertainment system developed by Panasonic. (Engadget gave a very thorough review of the system here: http://www.engadget.com/2007/08/10/h...d-in-flight-entertainment-syste/.)
On the back side of the remote is a mini keyboard that can be used for in-flight chat rooms as well as possibly for future e-mail and text message use. The buttons were small and took some getting used to, but it was not bad.
The monitor has 1024x600 resolution and is 9” big. There are inactive wireless points in the cabin for when Virgin gets in-flight WiFi going. Every seat has a dedicated USB and Ethernet port, and every three seat-row has two standard outlets (no adapter needed).
View of cabin row--very spacious
The Red system has over 3,000 MP3s from a wide variety of artists (James Blunt, David Bowie, Bob Dylan, Radiohead, U2
, The Who) and you can make a playlist on the plane (or apparently beforehand online and then have it transmitted to your seat). There are also chatrooms for the whole plane as well as seat-to-seat messaging. From the Red system, you can order drinks and food, although this feature was disabled for the flight because of the short time.
Flight attendants have monitors on one of the galley carts as well as handheld tablet PCs. The system also keeps track of the galley’s stock and will notify passengers if something runs out.
Live television, music, radio, and music videos were all free. Movies cost $8.00 (yikes!) but there were approximately 45 movies to choose from a wide genre (300, Shrek the Third, The Namesake, etc.). Network television shows (called “Premium TV
”) were $1.99 each (still expensive, I think) and there were approximately 225 shows, including episodes from The Simpsons, Scrubs, The Office, and Prison Break.
The crew (called “the In-Flight Team”) was made up of three females and one male, all under 30 (there was additionally one technician on board to troubleshoot the IFE and galley systems). They were all very polite and professional, and were probably one of the best flight crews I have ever had. I later learned that this was all their first time working for an airline and all had positive things to say about Virgin.
After a long taxi around the international terminal and to the other side of the airport, we had a quick take off roll and were airborne at 4:35.
Climbing out of LAX
The crew barely had time to serve drinks as by the time they finished with the last passenger, the captain announced we would be starting our descent soon.
In the center is a help-yourself supply of Evian water
Part of the galley can be curtained off (left)
The lavatories were simple and I noticed in addition to soap being dispensed from the standard metal dispenser, there was also a bottle of Method soap. (Method is a San Francisco-based company that manufactures biodegradable and non-toxic cleaning supplies.)
At 5:00 the captain announced we would soon be starting our initial descent and should get up now to go to the restroom if we needed to. Just after the announcement, the flight attendants came to my seat for beverage service. They offered a full beverage service, which was impressive given the short flight time.
We started out final descent at 5:21 and landed at 5:25 on runway 28L. Virgin uses the international terminal at SFO
, and we arrived to gate 10 at 5:32.
On my way out, I was invited into the cockpit and was able to briefly speak to the pilots. So far, they love their job and are very pleased.
Thursday, August 9, 2007
Scheduled Departure Time: 6:15 P.M.
Actual Departure Time: 6:19 P.M.
Scheduled Arrival Time: 7:40 P.M.
Actual Arrival Time: 7:32 PM
Flight Time: 54 minutes (cruising at 37,000 feet)
I only had a short time on the ground at SFO
so I just barely walked around the international terminal, which is very nice (and definitely better than T4
). The balloons from the previous day’s celebrations were still up.
boarding gate was very nice, with flowers on the counter. Even their boarding sign had some of that Virgin flare: “Boarding at 5:50 -- Rock it Out!”
Boarding commenced at 5:55 and I was back on N624VA with the same crew. One of the flight attendants told me they do three LAX
trips in a day and the entire crew (pilots included) “follow the aircraft”.
I figured that since I was going to fly the leg, this was a bit of a celebration, Virgin’s first class has been well talked about, and I’ve never flown first class, I would fly first class on the way back.
Again, most of the Guests seemed relatively young and urban, especially in first. Two of the first Guests were on the previous day’s inaugural flight. As other people were boarding, I heard two funny remarks about the cabin. The first was, “This is so LA
,” and the second was a woman talking on her cell phone, “I’m boarding now and I have to go. It’s all purple and stuff. I can’t deal with it.”
Virgin’s first class is very spacious and is more like international business class than it is domestic first.
The seats are fully automated and have three pre-set buttons: one for takeoff that places the seat in its normal position, one called “Comfort” that has a slight recline, and one called “Relax” that was very comfortable and probably great for sleeping.
Additionally, there are buttons to adjust each component of the seat to set it to your preference. The seat does not fully recline to 180 degrees, but probably go to 150 degrees or so.
The seat also has massage features, but it was complicated to successfully operate and I never completely figured it out. (There are “Welcome Booklets” that contain seat information, but they were not loaded on this aircraft.)
The door closed at 6:19, we pushed at 6:20, and were airborne at 6:34. I took out the PTV and as I was browsing the selections, I noticed my controller did not seem to be fully functional. But it did not pose much of a problem since everything besides the chat and game options can be operated via touch-screen.
The FAs served drinks in real glasses and were very attentive to refills. Unfortunately, there was no food served, not even a snack. I was hoping to try out ordering food from my seat.
At 7:04 we started our descent 140 miles out of LAX
. On our way in, we flew by LAX
On both segments the pilot announced that the fasten seat belt sign would be turned on within 10 minutes, which is an announcement I appreciated as so many airlines just turn it on and then announce it is going to be on for the rest of the flight.
We landed at 7:32 on 24R and were back at gate 67B at 7:42. Given how recent Virgin started operations, I did not find their one late arrival to be too bad, especially since it was only by a few minutes. It should be noted that they are padding their schedule with extra time, which is definitely better than not doing so (ahem, Skybus), so with time they should get better.
After the Guests deplaned, the flight the crew very nicely allowed me to stay on board for five minutes to take most of cabin photos you’ve seen.
Virgin America is the first entrant in this new phase of the aviation industry, one that matches our current information age. Travelers want a less sterile and more personalized and dynamic experience where they can enjoy flying. Virgin’s cabin sets the scene and the airline’s personality fills in the rest.
At the same time, this spring saw the entry of a new kind of low cost airline, the ultra-no-frills Skybus. Now there is almost the complete opposite kind of LLC with Virgin America. Skybus likes to show off just how cheap it is, while other LLCs like AirTran, Allegiant, and Spirit don’t seem to care either way, and jetBlue and (to some extent) Southwest are the go-to examples for a successful LLC, Virgin America is at the top, hands down.
Virgin has successfully combined the good parts of every airline: two seating classes, a nice cabin interior, excellent entertainment, free drinks but offering food for purchase (and real food--not just snack boxes), good service, and very friendly staff at every level.
Most impressively, they created an airline that passengers with just one flight loved. I never knew it was possible for the public to like an airline so much. JetBlue is looked well upon, but the response to Virgin America was on a different--and higher--level.
Most of the passengers looked like they traveled frequently enough and on their way out I heard dozens of passengers tell the crew just how much they liked Virgin and how better it was than every U.S. airline.
This is not to say Virgin does not have it flaws or room for improvement. Even with flights to Boston, Washington, and Las Vegas, their route map is small. Their frequent flyer program, Elevate, is typical for a LLC in that it offers no partners, almost all points have to be earned from flying, and the points have a quick expiration.
Virgin has earned its long-awaited wings and delivers a truly unique product to a domestic aviation industry ready for rejuvenation but filled with antiquated airlines unfit for this age. It’s hard to imagine airlines like Northwest and Spirit are in the same industry as Virgin. While not every U.S. airline will install mood lighting and re-do their cabins, Virgin will force its competitors to re-think their strategy.
Virgin’s term of “Guests” is appropriate in defining travelers in this new era. We are not nameless “passengers” cooped up in a metal can held at the mercy of airlines, but rather people who should be able to consistently have a pleasant flight, and if not, free to leave and take our business elsewhere. Virgin America is giving the domestic industry its glamour back and making flying a pleasure once again. It’s ahead of the game, will do well if it continues to play its cards right, and starting this past Wednesday is one of the best airlines in the U.S.