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.

  • this is awesome, its about time someone brought service back to flying. If things didn’t change, the airlines would start removing seats and making people stand on the planes so they could cram an extra 50 people on each flight.

    and chatting on the flight….sweeet!

  • it’s amazing to find an airline carrier that is so excited to serve the customer. all of these new features make me want to fly from dfw to sfo just to be able to fly to new york on one of these fine birds.

    in-seat chatting? now we can forget about having to “accidentally” bump into the hottie on aisle 12 in order to get her attention.

    the reason for the switch of main cabin seats to black and first class to white could reinforce main cabin as the “new first” class in the mind of the consumer.

  • I couldn’t agree more with the above comments; I haven’t been this excited about flying since I was a kid.

  • Great post, Artur. A ‘mile high’ implementation of IM sounds fantastic. You might want to make some follow-up posts on this. In fact, you could even host a competition, and potentially give four lucky readers the chance to blast each other with BFGs in a whole new way.

  • Great article Arthur, really informative!

    That Richard is something else too.

  • Haha, that sounds absolutely brilliant. Gotta me on one of those flights soon!

  • adam

    How do you get from San Fransico to London on $400 again?

  • Walt Mankowski

    That does sound very cool, but I wonder if “every seat” really means “every seat”, or just “every first class seat”. The last time I flew coach (United, coming home from YAPC) I barely had enough space to open up a book, let alone use a full keyboard.

  • D Ashcart

    Dissenting voice here – I’m glad to hear that you like Virgin Atlantic. In my experience (USA Middle East), Virgin Atlantic has been abysmal – lousy service, delays, and over-priced.

    Disembarkation, however, is a pleasure 8-).

    Singapore Airlines and Emirates Air lead the pack in terms of amenities for humble coach cattle like me. I’ll keep my mind and eyes open for how Virgin cracks the domestic skies.

  • Phil

    I flew from Tahiti to New York (a really LONG flight) in coach on the new Airbus and it really wasn’t that bad. The screen in the back of the seat in front of me gave me a selection of viewing our progress via GPS, or watching any number of recent movies (dubbed in French on an adjacent channel). I thought it was awesome. And while it didn’t have the upgrades that Virgin supposedly has, it was a relatively enjoyable flight experience.

  • Doom on an aircraft sounds terrific. I already love watching action movies with turbulence, I can only imagine how it will enhance a first-person shooter.

  • Walt:

    Every seat does mean every seat. In economy there is a power port per seat. In economy there are two ports per 3 seats.

    D Ashcart:

    I rarely fly economy. My surgery makes it incredibly painful to sit for a long while and Upper Class is by far the best business class. Though I usually use miles to upgrade.

    adam: they are published in Sabre. The fares are $250 or so roundtrip and then there is $200 of taxes.

  • adam:

    Ok, I was a bit wrong: current cheapest published fare is

    NLXNCNA BA N Round-Trip 388.00 (USD) SU / 12M 07

    Which plus taxes is around $500. But the fare sales go as low as ~225 with taxes.

  • Wow, that looks like a whole different world – domestic flights with US Airways or Delta are such a pain. I bet the food is also a lot better?

  • Joe

    The reason they can do this is because they pay the pilots crap wages. So… What are you paying for?

  • I really hope he gets this to work.

    The ‘low cost’ model in Europe is full of catches and caveats (think extra charges for each piece of luggage, only one person to check in a whole plane, secondary airports an hour or more away from the destination city advertised, only a few seats available at the headline price advertised, services cancelled with no warning or contingency).

    There are always compromises to a low cost model, but if anyone can do it well I would have trust in Sir Richard.

  • >>Talk about a brand new way to find someone to enter the mile high club with.


  • adam

    Now I’m really interested. How can I get a fare like this? Going from DFW to London cost me twice that. Could you point me to a booking agent or website?

  • Jack

    It’s always good to have another carrier to choose from, but I’m leery about Virgin’s business practices after reading this item in yesterday’s news:

  • Dan

    @Kevin: In many cases it is still cheaper to fly with a European low-cost carrier than with a traditional airline even if you have to pay extra for a bag, go to an airport that’s farther away and bring your own food. Low-cost carriers like Ryanair essentially made it possible to spend a weekend in London without spending half a month’s salary for the flights.

  • Rob

    In reply to Joe… its worth noting that British commercial pilots are the best trained and best paid in the world.

  • Rob

    In reply to Joe… its worth noting that British commercial pilots are the best trained and best paid in the world.

  • I agree with Hasan Luongo’s comment that airlines would “start removing seats and making people stand on the planes so they could cram an extra 50 people on each flight” if they could. But, that is not necessarily a bad thing. If discount prices were to quarter, I would probably be willing to travel “stand-class.”

    But, that does not take away from the argument “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?”

    That is indeed a valid point. More power Virgin America and other such pioneering enterprises.

  • Just a day after my comment here, I read Sir Richard Branson’s interview on Engadget and was delighted to hear that “If you look at any poll of the best airlines in the world, I’ve never seen an American carrier come anywhere but very very near the bottom.”

    Lets hope he does alter the industry strucure in a cost efficient way.

  • Michael Davis

    Great job Richard and gang. Keep up the good work. Exactly what we need here in the states.

  • carla

    Wish they would fly from Seattle to NY

  • just a quick follow up thought. So you’ve got im, a video system, cool purple seats and all that but simple wi-fi is a “coming soon” feature?

    I might be thick here, but is there a major security risk with wi-fi, open im, and all other things the web enables? If thats the case I get it, if not, I think this should be feature #1.

  • susan

    Please remember that “Virgin” is a leased name. This is an american airline. It has NO ties to Virgin Atlantic. They both lease the name.

    Wi-fi is an FCC regulation that will be opened up in 2008. The airline cannot do anything about that except wait.

    Virgin is not a low-cost airline, it’s a lower cost than United, but it’s not Southwest either. Every seat has a keyboard and plug for your computer. There are extra costs if you want them. But you choose what you want to pay for, not the airline. Also the baggage allowance for the 1st bag is 20lbs heavier than usual. 70lbs! In coach you pay $10 for the 2nd bag under 50lbs. That’s a lot of stuff guys. So you can pack your water if your going on a cruise!

  • Vladimir

    Dont trust any arousing ad about Virgin America and don’t trust their promises! We supposed to leave at 9:25pm from SFO to IAD on Oct. 28, 2007 but the Virgin America flight delayed over 2 hours. Even Virgin America staff members were chatting and walking around despite of lateness. They did not move forward and operate quickly. They were chatting and rumoring about their passengers. They performed too slowly and boarding was too slow. Boarding procedure took longer than one hour.

    Virgin America staff members are long tongue chatters than Southwest flight crew and staff members. I feel that my business trip time is abused by Virgin America chronic lateness and sloppy service. We were expected to arrive at 5:30am next morning in IAD because we supposed to open a business meeting at 8am in DC area but the flight delayed and we arrived at 8am!!! The flight captain promised us to arrive late not longer than 6:30AM next day.

    Many passengers are angry and mad. The flight crew was rude and with their negative attitude. I am a business traveller and have experienced with many red eye flights. Most airlines turn off lights during night time in order to allow passengers to sleep and rest well but airlines usually do turn on only a few of lights in a main cabin. Virgin America crew refused to turn off lights during night(bed time) and lights were on all night and morning. The lights distracted us to sleep…Honestly, we were surprised about that. Their flight crew was rude. I asked a flight attendant to turn off some lights for our bed time but he refused and told us to close eyes and shut up our mouths.

    Results after Virgin America flight: We missed the business meeting and lost our potential clients! We lost revenue and profits;
    Our feelings are not good after the flight; Enormous disappointment;
    More expenses on parking after the lateness of the flight;
    Bad traffic in IAD area;

    The Virgin America is not reliable and not punctual with schedule and departure/arrival time. The Virgin America is NOT for business people and full-time employers/es! It might be good for senior citizen who usually do not hurry somewhere. The Virgin America guest care does not respond and never follow up with complaints!!!


  • Kasha

    In response to Vladimir’s post I have something to say.
    I think that blaming an entire carrier for one bad flight is generalizing quite a bit. I recently flew to Europe and the carrier not only arrived late, causing me to miss my connecting flight, but lost my luggage, and then charged me to have it delivered because where I was staying was outside of their delivery zone.

    What was the reason for the late departure time of your flight? Was it weather? Or could it have been that due to the SoCal fires a lot of flights had been diverted to SFO and they were taking on more flights than they could handle? Were there other flights on other carriers with late departure times? Also, if you knew that your flight was going to be late why didn’t you call you potential clients and push back your meeting to guarantee you wouldn’t miss the meeting? I think in business if someone is flying in for meeting and their flight is delayed the client would be able to understand that. If the meeting was so important to you why did you take a flight that was supposed to be arriving only 1 1/2 hours before the meeting? I would think you would fly in earlier or book your meeting later. There could have been a thousand things that made you late the meeting other than a late flight, like for instance a car accident where you could have been stuck in traffic, or inability to get a taxi at that time of the morning or getting lost on the way there just to name a few.
    I don’t think you can blame Virgin America for there being heavy traffic at IAD, or for your additional expenses for parking as you undoubtedly didn’t have a car parked at IAD charging you for not being there. Unless your return flight was also delayed and caused you additional charges at your home airport. You never mentioned your return flight. Based on what you said of your flight being delayed 2 hours do the math how was the pilot seriously going to make up an hour in the air, yeah maybe on a 12/13 hour international flight with a major tailwind, but on domestic coming from west to east, not likely.
    I also am of the opinion that you are exaggerating a bit about the rudeness of the flight staff, as you are angry about losing your client. Something I think you could have avoided with proper communication, but if your attitude is they way it comes across on your post then I think you probably just blew it because of that not a late flight.

  • Barbara

    BEWARE OF VIRGIN AMERICA! I checked in my luggage with Virgin in SFO, flying to JFK. My notebook computer was stolen from my luggage while it was checked with Virgin. Their response was that they have no responsibility because it was in checked luggage!!! They wouldn’t even accept a claim. Let’s see what the court says ….

  • I must say that I was not impressed at all with the online transaction of purchasing a ticket with virgin since it gave me an error on July 28th like twice before I had to call reservations and have them waive the call center fee.
    I must admit though that had it not been for the experience I would not have bothered and kept my reservation with AA.
    The reps in the call center still are not informed fully on answering questions like if after the cabin door is closed and no one is in the $25 premium emergency seat can I ask to sit there and not pay that price?. I am happy for the new airline but these additonal charges that they are asking for on board is ridiculous. Since when an exit row is premium ? I loved jetblue until my points started expiring because I refused to get an AMEX card with them but until then, I would fly anyone who offers me a lower airfare any given time once I get to where I am going safely. AA customer service has deteriorated over the years. Lets see about Virgin .

  • Ben

    I had a very unpleasant experience with Virgin America this morning, one that has left me extremely disappointed with the company and one that has cemented my loyalty to Southwest Airlines for my personal and my company’s frequent internal flights within California and to New York.

    I was originally booked on the 6:30 am flight VX834 from LAX to SFO on Monday January 28th. I mistakenly arrived at the Virgin Atlantic terminal and therefore missed my flight. Because it was too late to make my morning meeting in San Francisco I wished to change my flight to the same itinerary – 6:30am Tuesday morning the 29th. Told it would cost $40 to change plus the change in fare, I initially decided to take the 10:30am flight later that same day (Monday the 28th). However, within an hour I decided simply to cancel the ticket entirely, lose the $40, but take still the approximately $15 remaining credit toward a future flight on Virgin America. I called the service number and spoke to an unpleasant and unhelpful woman. Not only did she deny my cancellation claim entirely (I’m not sure why) but, though I remained entirely calm and respectful, she also flatly refused to let me speak to a manager, or her “lead.” This is a right of any customer dealing with any company. I have never experienced such poor service by any airline, even in this day and age of record low customer service. Never have I been denied the opportunity to talk with a manager.

    Needless to say my architecture firm, with offices in San Francisco, Los Angeles, and New York will no longer use Virgin America. Additionally, I and my wife travel between Los Angeles and San Francisco every weekend to see each other and our families live in New York City and Washington DC – their two east coast destinations. Their treatment – over a difference of $15 – has now cost them thousands and thousands of dollars in future revenue plus our disappointment in an airline that we were excited about.


  • the free tickets
    why you don’t pick up in jamaica.I live in jamaica and i would like a ticket to and from america.

  • Thai ppl

    I fly from San Francisco to Las Vegas. And the airline lost my bag. I have to follow up by myself they promised to call me but I never heard and call from the airline. I move from Bangkok Thailand to Canada. The temperature is totally different and I have no proper cloths to wear. Everyday I suffer with the minus temperature and When I call them the answer I get is we are in process. When asking the process of claim they said I suppose to have the receipt for all stuff in the bag. That is ridiculous. Who will keep the receipt until last 1 or 2 yrs. The airline totally make me down and now I start sick. I hope i will still have a life to know where is my bag…..

  • J.M

    Just flew from LA to SFO
    going coach, seats no different that all others except new & leather, Absolutely no leg room and if someone heavy sits next to you forget it.
    Like all the other airlines there is no one paying attention to passenger comfort rather gadgets etc. I would rather have leg and width room over all the other non important gadgets.
    Comfort is the most important thing.
    Flew back first class after paying $100.00 for 2 upgrade ,seats comfortable, no instructions on how everything works and best of all, Don’t serve a cold appeizer of three different items that amounts to a morsel and that’s it. I would rather you served nothing then.

  • Stuart Martin

    I just flew my 10th and final flight with Virgin America. I feel qualified to say Virgin America is the worst airline I’ve ever flown.

    1. Mood lighting

    1. Lost reservation forcing a re-booking on day of flight
    2. Lost luggage
    3. 10% on-time record

    One piece of checked luggage vanished for 36 hours. All my flights but one were delayed. At least two of these delays were entirely due to problems in Virgin America’s control (poor scheduling of FAA inspection; insufficient available flight hours for crew necessitating a detour to Las Vegas).

    This week, Virgin America lost a reservation made using a frequent flier promotion. They re-booked me on the day of the flight, at $400 rather than the original $0 fare. I followed up with several tiers of customer service and was consistently told that “our system has no record of your original booking, we are unwilling to pursue this matter further.”

    Virgin America should enjoy that last $400 they fraudulently extracted from me. I will fly them again.

  • IAN (I think employee# 135101) from first class was checking us in San Francisco (SFO).

    There was two of us with ONE 75 pound lugage.
    So, I stepped aside to re-packed it, then weighed 68 pounds. Only to be hassle again and then asked to weigh my carry on.

    The carry-on weighed 35 pound for two of us.

    The pushy IAN forced us to check our carry-on in because that too was overwieght. Split between two people would have been 17.5 pounds easily.

    Question is did IAN have a bad day with his boy friend or girl friend?

  • Anne

    I just flew r/t from LAX to NYC on Virgin America. Both flights were very crowded (completely sold out!) but overall, the service was good. My only concern was that on the flight home, there were 3 dogs and a cat allowed on the flight… imagine being on a crowded plane for over 6 hours with 3 dogs and cat! My daughter is extremely allergic to cats and I was concerned when the flight crew allowed the passenger to keep the cat in his lap (unrestrained) for the entire flight even after I told them of my daughter’s allergy. I have never been on a flight where animals were allowed to ride in laps… it felt a little like being on the Ark.

  • Roy

    I LOVE Virgin America!!! I am a flight attendant for “another” carrier here in the United States and let me say…it’s about time that an airline like this came along. I hope I get hired at Virgin America!!!

  • WAZZ

    How long does it take to fly from SFO to LAS??
    If youre on Virgin (theee worst domestic airline I’ve eve been on) 5 1/2 hours!!! Four hours to figure out that the computers on the plane dont work (which they knew when they boarded us at 1:30 on the Dark Shadow or Dark something or other). What good is fancy purple lighting and
    fancy dancy in flight entertainment (which didnt work on either plane we were on) if you dont ever get in the air?? They give you vouchers which are useless since you cant redeem them for anything because their fancy gizmos dont work. Between the delay (1.5 hrs from LAS to SFO (VX1774) and the 5 1/2 hrs from SFO to LAS (VX1763) we lost a whole day of precious vacation time! Never again will we fly virgin.

  • BochicaWon

    VirginAmerica=AWSOME but 1 BAD emp#135101 name=IAN

    There was two of us with ONE 75 pound lugage checking in an Over weight lugage in San Francisco (SFO)
    So, I stepped aside to re-packed it, then weighed 68 pounds. Only to be hassle again and then asked to weigh my carry on.

    The carry-on weighed 35 pound for two of us.

    The pushy IAN forced us to check our carry-on in because that too was overwieght. Split between two people would have been 17.5 pounds easily.

    My Question is “Did IAN have a bad day with his boy friend or girl friend?”

    Doing a job you don’t like is worse than losing your job.

  • If you ever do it, you will find it to be an inCREDible experience. I would highly recommend Virgin to any traveler.