Photo of the day – Flying Mariachi band

Last week, Virgin America launched new flights from San Francisco to Puerto Vallarta, Mexico. What better way to get into the espíritu than with a Mariachi band? Frommers editor and Flickr user DavityDave was on board to get this shot and taste some Mexican goodies. We wonder if the band had to purchase an additional seat for their guitars or if they could just fit them in the overhead bin. Did they perform the safety demo too?

Have you ever flown on an inaugural flight? Seen anything else fun on a plane? Add your best shots to the Gadling Flickr pool and we may use it for a future Photo of the Day.

Gilt City lets you name your own Virgin America plane and take your friends on a trip – for just $60,000

In search of a luxe holiday gift for someone special? You don’t have to shell out for the G5.

For just $60,000 this Cyber Monday, Gilt City has partnered with Virgin America to offer a lucky person the chance to name a Virgin plane (permanently!) and enjoy a round-trip flight for the purchaser and 145 of their closest friends. You can take any roundtrip nonstop domestic flight (Las Vegas, Seattle, San Francisco, Chicago, New York and DC are on the list) on your own schedule, plus enjoy WiFi, a complimentary checked bag each and extra Gilt City amenities during the flight.

It’s a pretty sweet deal, coming out to just $411 per person, which is about the price of a roundtrip flight anyway. Even better? You can depart and leave whenever you wish, so long as you abide by the “four months in advance” reservation requirement.

Just one catch – you need to sign up for a free Gilt City membership to buy. But don’t worry, we’ve got an invite code for you.

Virgin America launches real-time deals with Loopt

Virgin America, the airline that always seems to be on the cutting edge with in-flight entertainment and passenger satisfaction, is launching a new initiative to keep customers happy before they even board their flight. Virgin America’s new program “VX Deals on the Fly” has it teaming up with the mobile check-in company Loopt to offer deals at the airline’s hub at San Francisco International (SFO).

To unlock real-time deals, passengers at SFO must use Loopt to check in at T2, the spanking new Terminal 2 where San Francisco-based Virgin America is an anchor tenant, then watch a short video about the terminal’s modern and sustainable design. “A Day in the Life of SFO’s T2” does an excellent job of making the airport almost as inviting as the onward destination. [Watch it here.]

VX Deals on the Fly range from discounts at restaurants and shops within T2 to deals on Virgin America flights. Here’s a full list of VX Deals on the Fly available through December 22, 2011:

  • Cat Cora’s Kitchen: a complimentary dessert when you order two tapas.
  • Kiehl’s: Two complimentary product samples.
  • Natalie’s Candy Jar: 15 percent off discounts on bulk candy.
  • Napa Farms Market: $1.00 off TCHO chocolate bars or Napa Farmhouse marmalades.
  • Hotel escape offers from $315 through the Elevate® loyalty program’s partner Morgans Hotel Group’s Boutique and Lifestyle Hotels, including Clift in San Francisco and Mondrian in Los Angeles.
  • Car rental: $15 off your next green car rental at SFO.
  • Virgin America: 10-20 percent off last minute travel discounts as well as random two-for-one and free flight offers for future trips.

Yes, that’s right. Checking in at T2 with Loopt could possibly land you a two-for-one flight deal or a free flight from Virgin America. To learn more about VX Deals on the Fly, visit the Virgin America and Loopt websites.

Virgin America improves inflight entertainment system

Part of the reason that Virgin America keeps getting voted the best domestic carrier is because of their Inflight Entertainment (IFE). Called RED, the seatback system lets passengers browse live television, catch up pre-recorded shows, watch movies and participate in a whole host of other fancy activities from ordering food to browsing around a real-time Google map.

To stay on top of the industry though, the airline needs to keep adapting their system, and they’re starting the process this week with the announcement of the integration of the Lufthansa Systems’ BoardConnect platform into their fleet.
Basically, the BoardConnect platform is a completely new engine on top of which the RED system is going to live, meaning that the IFE will look similar moving forward but will be completely overhauled under the hood. The technology leverages a wireless internet network to maintain and update its data, which means that content will now be updated faster and at lower cost. In turn, this translates to a better experience for the passengers on board, which is always great to hear about.

Hopefully it also means that we can get our boys from Travel Talk churning within the RED channels once more.

BoardConnect technology has already been unrolled on the airplane #nerdbird. More updates are expected on later aircraft.

Emirates, Virgin America win Passenger Choice Awards

Window or aisle? Coffee or Coke? Choices for airline passengers are shrinking faster than the on-board snack. But there are some airlines that are still mindful of the passenger experience and they were announced last night at the 2011 Passenger Choice Awards.

Winning the top awards for Best Overall Passenger Experience were Emirates and Virgin America. The top awards were split between larger airlines, with over 50 IFE-equipped (In Flight Entertainment-Equipped) planes in fleet (Emirates), and smaller airlines, with under 50 IFE-quipped planes in fleet (Virgin America). Not surprisingly, Emirates and Virgin America each won for their respective regions, Middle East and Americas, and Virgin America also pulled in awards for Best Inflight Video and Best Ground Experience. Another Virgin brand, V Australia – the international airline of Virgin Australia – won Passenger Choice awards for Best in Region: Asia and Australasia, Best IFE User Interface, and Best Food and Beverage. The only U.S.-based airline to win a Passenger Choice award was JetBlue, which won for Best Cabin Ambiance.

Here are all of the winners:

  • Best Overall Passenger Experience (Over 50 IFE EQUIPPED IN FLEET) – Emirates
  • Best Overall Passenger Experience (Up to 50 IFE EQUIPPED IN FLEET) – Virgin America
  • Best in Region: Africa – South African Airways
  • Best in Region: Americas – Virgin America
  • Best in Region: Asia and Australasia – V Australia
  • Best in Region: Europe – Virgin Atlantic
  • Best in Region: Middle East – Emirates
  • Best Inflight Publication – Avianca
  • Best IFE User Interface – V Australia
  • Best Inflight Connectivity & Communications – Oman Air
  • Best Inflight Video – Virgin America
  • Best Cabin Ambiance – JetBlue
  • Best Food & Beverage in conjunction with IFSA – V Australia
  • Best Ground Experience – Virgin America

Another winner at the Passenger Choice Awards was Air New Zealand, which won the Avion Award for Best Single Achievement in Passenger Experience for the Skycouch Family Experience (pictured above and in this gallery), which is about as comfortable as you can expect to get in economy class on a commercial flight in the foreseeable future.

Photo courtesy Air New Zealand