Virgin America Airbus A320 – Photo: David Parker Brown
It has been a while since I’ve flown on Virgin America, and to be honest I’ve sort of missed it. The purplely-pink mood lighting, good food, and that awesome entertainment system; it was a light cutting through the otherwise dark and dank scene of American domestic economy flying.
Thus I was rather looking forward to getting back in the air with Virgin, spurred on by its new codeshare partnership with China Airlines (which I recently sampled and detailed here). Arriving at SeaTac on November 30th, the Sunday after Thanksgiving, I expected mayhem but was instead met with relative calm.
The economy seats in Virgin America’s Airbus A320 – Photo: David Parker Brown
Virgin provided me a ticket in its Main Cabin Express (MCE) block of seats. The benefits are slight, basically amounting to early boarding after first class, seating in the first few rows of economy as well as guaranteed overhead bin access. The service and product are otherwise identical to the rest of the economy cabin.
Boarding was a bit chaotic, mostly thanks to the gate agent never actually announcing that it was time for MCE to board. Suspecting that I’d missed something, I joined the boarding line which now included main cabin passengers, and was ushered on the plane and into seat 5A.
I talk about airlines and airplanes a lot; it’s a part of who I am. Fairly often, my conversations about such topics end up on Virgin America. At this point, I am forced to divulge the fact that I had never been on Virgin America, a statement which is often met with a blank stare followed by the response, “really?”
Most of my domestic flights are on JetBlue and Delta, simply because of their much larger route network out of New York, where I am based. When I finally had the opportunity to give Virgin America a try, I immediately jumped at the chance. I flew from New York’s John F. Kennedy International (JFK) to San Francisco (SFO) and back in 12 hours as part of a media event, so travel was paid for by the airline (note: the airline paid for my trip, but all opinions are my own).
At JFK, Virgin America is based out of Terminal 4, which mainly houses international carriers. Virgins gates are in the A concourse, which is simply not where you want to be. With extremely limited restaurant and shopping options there, you will want to spend as little time as possible at the gate. Thankfully, Terminal 4 is undergoing a massive renovation which will remedy this issue. The terminal is in the process of unifying the two security checkpoints, and when complete, passengers will have access to a markedly wider selection of restaurants and shopping.
Virgin Americas gate at JFK T4 does not stand out in any way over any other domestic airline. There is no fancy seating, no nice lighting, and not so much as power outlet in sight. However, the instant you board the aircraft, things immediately start to change.
Most passengers will quickly notice the colorful mood lighting, which is a great upgrade from the typical dim white fluorescent tube lighting. At first it might appear the lighting is all LED, like we are seeing in new Boeing interiors, but it is actually a combination of fluorescent tubes and white LEDs with a color gel on them.
It’s warm, inviting, and just overall pleasant. Once settled, I found the seat to be quite comfy. The adjustable head rest is a great addition to the black leather seat. At 6’2’’, legroom was not an issue, as I had room to stretch, something becoming increasingly rare in economy.
Virgin America features one of the most advanced in-flight entertainment systems I have ever used, and I took this opportunity to put it to the test. The system, called RED, features movies and TV shows on demand, live satellite TV, food and drink ordering, and other information features. What I liked most about the system was how responsive it was. I never encountered any lag in the system, which makes the user experience quite enjoyable. I was thankful that the live TV was free, as I found the other selections a bit too expensive for my taste. The satellite TV selection is limited to 18 channels compared to 36 on JetBlue, and certain channels did not work, but I was always able to find something to watch.
One thing that did irk me about the entertainment system was that there seemed be a lot of features that either didn’t work, or weren’t yet available. For instance, on the main menu there is a button labeled “read,” but when clicked, a message told me that the feature is not yet available. A feature that is not yet activated should not be displayed as an option to the passenger.
I was able to follow up with Virgin American and they explained to AirlineReporter.com that they are, replacing the Read section with an Info Section, “that includes static content that will be updated every six weeks, but that relates to travel, destination and other info that is more ‘evergreen’ and that fits better with what guests want to engage with in-flight.”
Similarly, I had some issues with the program guide for the live TV. I would click on it and an error message would appear. That must have just been an isolated instance. Additionally, I would like if some on-screen reference was made to the tethered remote in the armrest. Had the passenger next to me not removed it first, I probably would never had known it could be moved.
My favorite part of the Virgin America experience was probably the in-flight ordering process. Virgin has done away with the traditional cart down the aisle system, and instead passengers order what they want through their screen and a flight attendant delivers it. I was extremely impressed at how simple the ordering process was, and how quickly items were delivered. If I could change one thing, it would be the inclusion of any free food option, even if just a small bag of chips. All food is purchase only in economy, no freebies except for drinks.
Once arriving to SFO, I made my way to my hotel and did not really check out the terminal. The following day, I made an effort to arrive at SFO early in the morning and was relieved to discover how beautiful Virgin America’s terminal was. Wide open spaces, bright, restaurant choices to satisfy even the most picky of eaters. This terminal clearly reflected Virgin’s attitude.
Unlike the terminal at JFK, SFO features lovely seating areas, classy furniture, free wifi and power outlets everywhere. These upgrades go a long way when it comes to unwinding after passing through security, and I wish any of these features were present at JFK.
Now that I have finally flown Virgin America, I can give an honest opinion of this high-tech, feature packed airline. While the airline did not disappoint, I’m not sure I would pay a premium over other airlines such as JetBlue for the privilege. The entertainment system may be more advanced and the mood lighting may create a brighter atmosphere, but overall, I felt the overall experience was different, but comparable. However, when compared to some legacy carriers that fly the route, I would absolutely consider upgrading to Virgin America.
The flight from SFO to JFK was a special media flight to fly the San Fransisco Giants World Championship Trophy to New York… stay tuned.
||This story written by… Jason Rabinowitz, Correspondent.
Jason is a New York City native who has grown up in the shadow of JFK International Airport. A true “avgeek”, he enjoys plane spotting and photography, as well taking any opportunity he can get to fly on an aircraft.
@AirlineFyer | FaceBook |
I was doing research on Virgin America’s new in-flight entertainment system and came across Brett Snyder’s review and figured I could do no better, so be sure to read his write up and then I will share a few thoughts (no rush, I can wait…)
Soon, you will be able to get Virgin America's RED on your own device.
So what do you think? I have been saying for quite sometime that I feel that the future of in flight entertainment will move from being on a screen hanging from the ceiling or in the seat-back to using your own devices. Almost everyone has some sort of device, be it a laptop, smart phone or tablet. People also update their devices much quicker and why should airlines pay millions to put in entertainment options, when they can just let you access options with your own device?
Recently Temo Madrigal took a look at American Airlines offering streaming entertainment to your device and Virgin America takes it one step further with BoardConnect by Lufthansa Systems. You can actually get Virgin America’s in flight system (called RED) on your own device. That is pretty slick. Virgin American also offers GoGo internet, so you have the ability to get online, use their seat back entertainment, or view their entertainment on your own device. Options are always king.
“The idea behind Red has always been to reinvent the flight experience, by offering travelers more options, more control, more content and more interactivity. Even though we believe that Red has raised the bar and is still head and shoulders above anything else in the U.S. skies, we’re not the kind of Company that rests on our laurels,” said David Cush, President and CEO of Virgin America.
As Brett pointed out in his story, it will be a while before customers get to enjoy this new feature. However, this month, Virgin America is starting trials on an Airbus A320, aptly named #NerdBird (N841VA). Passengers are not expected to be able to use the new system until late 2012, but it is not like Virgin America’s current RED system won’t entertain you for the time being. I already believe the Virgin America offers the best domestic in-flight entertainment options and it looks like they want to keep it that way.
Virgin America's RED now packs a stronger punch!
One of the problems of flying Virgin America for the first time is having to compare all other domestic in-flight entertainment systems to Virgin’s RED. Last week Virgin showed off a few nifty upgrades to their already powerful system. Unfortunately I was not able to attend, but I was able to send a correspondent, Rita Harvey, to cover the event in San Fransisco. Here are her thoughts in her own words:
David asked me to fly to San Francisco (SFO) to represent him and Airline Reporter as Virgin America (VA) unveiled their new in-flight features. Having never flown VA before, I jumped at the chance. It was definitely a unique flying experience; the cool lighting as you walk on board, entertaining safety video and having more in-flight distractions than I knew what to do with at my fingertips.
After arriving at the gate in San Fransisco where their plane and employees were waiting to show off the new features, I got to board and was greeted with a glass of champagne. At this point, I knew I was in for a treat. I was escorted into the first class area and was given a one on one demo of what they’re adding [argh I haven’t even been able to sit in VA first class yet -David].
One huge thing that will be new is having Sky Mall built into their entertainment system. The Red Store, as they are calling it, has over 200 products to choose from. As it states on the main screen, “ranging from little necessities to the coolest must haves”. I was pretty shocked to see a diamond encrusted iPhone for sale, only $38,000.
The next new feature that they have involves their food and beverage selection. There are going to be cocktails available that have been created specifically for their airline. I got to have one of their creations which was called a “Cocktail With Altitude” (ok, it might just be a normal drink with a fancy name, but that’s alright). Something else that they’re doing is offering food pairings. When the food ordering screen comes up, you’ll have the option to check out a whole slew of food, side, and drink combinations that complement each other. An example of this is their tapas platter, chocolate bar and either a non-alcoholic drink or an alcoholic one. Along with all of this, there will now be the option to open a tab. You can either choose to just buy that one thing or swipe your card once and leave the option to keep your tab open. Both of these will most likely entice passengers to part with their money more quickly.
The final upgrade is with their Google Maps. They’re now more accurate and now you can view the terrain. Having a map to see where your plane is and what landscape you are approaching is pretty cool.
Not only was it fun to get to experience this little jaunt down to SFO to check out Virgin’s entertainment upgrades but it was a pleasant first flight on Virgin for me, to and from the airport. I’m definitely looking forward to flying them again since they are probably one of the most enjoyable airlines to fly with.
* More photos of the event and flight from SEA to SFO
* Video tour from VA of the new RED features