Virgin America

Virgin America is Sir Richard Branson and the Virgin Group’s second attempt to enter the US domestic airline market, and as a devoted Virgin Atlantic traveler I have been eagerly following their progress to approval. Every time I fly a domestic US carrier I feel miserable. How come I can go from San Francisco to London with food and and a private entertainment system for $400 while San Francisco to Seattle costs me $300 and has no amenities at all? Hopefully that is about to change.

Purple plane
Purple plane – Taken by Artur Bergman

I recently had the opportunity to tour a Virgin America plane. As I entered the aircraft I thought, wow, it looks Virgin with a lot of purple. The planes are brand new Airbuses equipped with leather seats, a generous seat pitch, and really big first class seats. (I do however question their judgement making the first class seats white leather, although it does look fantastic.)

The entertainment system aboard is the highlight. Every seat is equipped with an in-flight entertainment device (IFE). Developed internally at Virgin America, the system is named Red and provides live satellite tv, movies, mp3s, games and plane-wide chatting. Yes, chatting. There is a general chatroom, a private invite channel for your friends, and direct user-to-user messaging. When watching television, you have the option to chat with everyone who is watching the same event. Talk about a brand new way to find someone to enter the mile high club with.

im in ur plane chattingnhittin ur knees
hittin ur knees – Taken by Brad Fitzpatrick

Most impressive is how integrated everything feels, from the website to the in-flight experience. If you build a playlist from the 3,000 mp3s on board, the reservation system will remember it and pre-load it the next time you board. Small touches like that are easy to implement if you have the right architecture and are bound to bring a smile to at least some customers.

The IFE runs Linux, boots over the network and has a full qwerty keyboard. All the processing is done locally, with the media residing on three servers living in the rear cargo area. Every seat includes 110v power, ethernet jack and USB ports. The USB ports are handy for charging your iPod or Blackberry, but you can also plug in a keyboard to use with the IFE. There are even two wifi base stations onboard, with internet access promised sometime next year.

The system’s use extends beyond the customer to the running of the in-flight services. For example, you order food and drinks from the IFE, and the crew will bring it to you. The system uses these orders to keep track of food stocks and tells the ground crew at the destination how much should be loaded on.

Virgin America Airbus 319
Virgin America Airbus 319 – Taken by Artur Bergman

Finally, the IFE has Doom on it, I don’t know if it is multiplayer or not. There is a competition going where you can submit your Open Source games for evaluation if they can run on the aircraft, a new target for game makers.

I had erroneously believed that use of Open Source as a competitive advantage was no longer possible. I thought that the agility and cost benefits had spread across all industries in the same way it has taken over Wall Street. It was surprising to me to hear that Open Source technologies and a modern service-oriented architecture drastically lowers costs for Virgin and increases the speed of innovation. There is no surprise when you hear that most of the IT staff don’t come from an airline background, but are Silicon Valley engineers. I wonder what other industries are ripe for an technological infusion to shake them up?

More pictures at my Flickr set from the expedition.