Gadling flies Virgin America

So what’s the big deal with this Virgin America that you’ve been yammering on and on about Grant? Are they secretly paying you money under the table to write good things about them?

No, they’re not, and even though I keep asking for free plane tickets (and none have showed up), the fact of the matter is, however, it’s a very different experience than flying a legacy carrier across the country, from in-flight service to entertainment to general ambiance.

Before I get into the details though, I will tell you this: flying still sucks. I have yet to find an economy class service on any airline in the world that is a true pleasure to fly on – you just can’t operate a competitive airline and make everyone comfortable and happy at the same time while remaining profitable. The whole idea of making a coach-class experience better basically has to do with making it suck less — you’re still crammed three people across in seats-too-small with no legroom. What Virgin America has done is made enough distractions so that you temporarily forget about it.

And they do a great job at that. On the jetway, you’re first offered free headseats to plug into VA’s special Red entertainment system. It’s a standard minijack with fairly weak speakers, so you can bring your own set if you want. Once you get on the airplane, you’ll obviously notice the purple, blue and pink ambient lighting which makes the airplane strangely calm. Seats are made of new leather material with plastic backs into which the Red system is integrated. With about 32″ of seat pitch, your space is about on par with other carriers, while the 17.2″ width is slightly wider than the norm.

In flight services start immediately, so once you plop down in your seat you can fire up some Food Network and watch the new hip chef with spiky hair cook octopus stomach while other passengers shuffle past you and cram their luggage-too-large into the overhead compartments.
After pushback and a cleverly animated safety video, you’ll spend about twenty minutes dinking around with Red, perusing your options and trying to get your friends to chat with you via the video system because you’re too afraid to invite the girl in the seat in front of you. Then you’ll probably scroll through the ten pages of pay and free movies and settle on a free flick for the next few hours of bliss. Or maybe you’ll dip your credit card (in-seat) and purchase a premium new release or order a sandwich and bevvy.

Flight attendants don’t roam up and down the aisles with carts per se. Since you order anything you want off of your entertainment system, they sit in back, download your order and come straight to your seat with whatever you want. This clears up space to walk around the cabin if you aren’t glued to your seatback.

And then before you know it, your flight will be over, and you’ll rub your neck, suddenly noticing that you had it cocked all funny because the girl in front of you kept her seat reclined the entire time. Stretching, you’ll swap notes with all of your friends on what movies you watched, agree that it was a pretty sweet flight and head out into the warm streets of San Francisco.

How big of a difference does an in-flight entertainment system make? Consider the effect of adding a fully interactive environment into the back of every seat. You aren’t forced to watch cheesy chick flicks from the nineties. You have options and the system gives back. Children automatically tune into the LCDs and suddenly start to behave. Aisleway traffic goes down because people aren’t wandering around talking or going to the galley for beverages (you order them from your seat). Nobody really makes much noise because they’re locked into their televisions, so the cabin adopts a silent, mood-lit atmosphere. It’s actually quite pleasant.

As I look back down the aisle of the major-carrier A320-SR that I’m currently on, I see six people in the aisle fighting to get around a flight attendant while some are standing talking to friends in other regions of the aircraft. The hot latin guy in 4C is chortling with the young woman next to him and everyone within a two seat radius keeps glaring at them. It’s a stark contrast to what I flew on VA earlier this week.

For now, Virgin America’s modus operandi seems to be working. Everyone I’ve spoken to that has flown on VA has emerged with glowing reviews and I have to admit, on service alone the airline scores high marks. Add an outstanding in flight entertainment system, new aircraft, strong financial backing and a fresh approach to airline travel and you’ve got a winning combination.