Previous  |  Next



Artur Bergman

Artur Bergman

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 chatting\nhittin 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.

tags:   | comments: 32   | Sphere It


0 TrackBacks

TrackBack URL for this entry:

Comments: 32

Hasan Luongo   [07.31.07 06:54 PM]

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!

Justin Avery   [07.31.07 09:14 PM]

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.

Paul Joyce   [07.31.07 10:30 PM]

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

N.Cauldwell   [08.01.07 01:42 AM]

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.

BillyG   [08.01.07 04:45 AM]

Great article Arthur, really informative!

That Richard is something else too.

Card Tricks   [08.01.07 09:32 AM]

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

adam   [08.01.07 11:13 AM]

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

Walt Mankowski   [08.01.07 11:21 AM]

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   [08.01.07 11:54 AM]

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   [08.01.07 12:45 PM]

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.

Rob Cockerham   [08.01.07 02:43 PM]

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.

Artur Bergman   [08.01.07 03:00 PM]


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.

Artur Bergman   [08.01.07 03:22 PM]


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.

Manuel   [08.01.07 05:14 PM]

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   [08.01.07 07:29 PM]

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

Kevin   [08.02.07 12:56 AM]

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.

dave mcclure   [08.02.07 01:04 AM]

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


adam   [08.02.07 08:50 AM]

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   [08.02.07 09:58 AM]

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   [08.02.07 10:22 AM]

@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   [08.04.07 09:24 AM]

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

Rob   [08.04.07 09:25 AM]

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

Ajeet Khurana   [08.08.07 09:23 AM]

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.

Ajeet Khurana   [08.09.07 03:33 PM]

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   [08.12.07 03:37 PM]

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

carla   [08.30.07 10:50 AM]

Wish they would fly from Seattle to NY

Hasan Luongo   [09.21.07 09:20 AM]

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   [10.09.07 07:07 AM]

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   [10.31.07 08:55 AM]

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   [11.07.07 04:53 PM]

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   [12.18.07 12:17 PM]

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 ....

Chris Wong   [12.27.07 08:48 PM]

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 .

Post A Comment:

 (please be patient, comments may take awhile to post)

Remember Me?

Subscribe to this Site

Radar RSS feed