Virgin America: Humans at the Center

While she is not nearly this old, the Bride learned to drive on a Model A pickup truck. The experience was centered around the magic of personal locomotion - the human was a bit of an afterthought as the engineering of these first mass-produced automobiles focused instead on harnessing the challenging technology of the day. 200906261016.jpg She regales me with her memories: set the choke, engage the spark, and other terms lost to history. The automatic transmission, the electric starter, power windows and cup holders had not yet been invented. Today, buying a car with a manual transmission is within the interest of the hobbyist, but for most of us who are buying transportation rather than a car - the latter is the domain of a fading breed. The need to accommodate the human to early technology has passed, we can now tailor the experience to our comfort and convenience. Back in the 1970s, I had the occasion to listen to one of the first Sony Walkman devices to enter the U.S. The sound was remarkable, I knew I was experiencing history. Of course, if you moved the portable device, the cassette tape would warble and distort the sound. No matter, the engineering needed to produce this remarkable sound hadn't yet caught up to the iPod experience. I accepted the limitations of motion because the innovation of the sound experience was worth the inconvenience.

What is your focus when you purchase transportation services - are you buying the car or the ride? For air travel - my real point - are you buying the airline or the flight? For years I supported United, I knew the airline industry was a difficult yet essential industry, and I believed that loyal customers were core to the health of the industry. I earned "elite" status, and was able to book exit row seats and the occasional upgrade to human-sized seats and actual service. I have been a United "member" since 1991.

What I missed was the dynamics of the market - so long as someone is willing to pay to fly, someone else will provide the service. United is an important employer, but it is apparent their system of service delivery places accommodation of the human as a last priority. Recently, I began to listen as fellow travelers told me of airlines such as Virgin America, Jet Blue, etc, who considered the user experience in their design of the cabin, the services, etc.

For me, today, this stops here. This far, no further! (Hoping you can hear Patrick Stewart as you read that.)

I write this while aboard my first Virgin America flight. I am less than an hour into the flight, but it feels like it's only been 10 minutes or so. The simple reason, I am not focused on the airline, the aircraft, or the fact that I'm strapped in and hurtling through the air at 30,000 feet. I am not deprived of all sensory input so that I may focus on the flying experience. Instead, my senses and mind are engaged - not enduring the broadcast of a single movie choice that changes every two weeks, but enjoying options from on-demand television and video as well as in-flight Internet access. Rather than treating my weekly cross-continent commute as a time of sensory deprivation, I am connected and engaged.

Some quick comparisons, written now two hours into a five hour flight. I don't think I need to wait for landing to finish this blog, though:



“We welcome our Global Services, 1K members, and First Class on the red carpet to board first. Seating area 1 will board using the blue carpet, but only after Premier Executive members board, also using the blue carpet. It’s simple, people!”

“Hi, John. Welcome aboard, please enjoy your flight.”

Pre-flight safety video eminently ignorable and hasn’t changed. Kindly bearded gentleman in the video likely retired in 1980s.

Pre-flight video speaks to you as an adult, uses clever cartoons to engage you. Bonus, Richard Branson avatar makes inappropriate reference to Mile-High Club.

In-flight entertainment system is initiated once “cruising altitude is reached.” I secretly palm the iPhone, listening furtively to avoid takeoff noise.

Seat-back video available as you board and throughout. No need for subversive behavior.

In-flight entertainment (on most flights) consists of central video, occasionally obscured. Broadcast model - one movie fits all. The movie and tired TV reruns cycle twice per month.

In-flight entertainment matches home experience - satellite television and on-demand movies. I don’t need to stock iTunes with past seasons of Rescue Me to endure the flight.

Seat audio often inaudible or broken (personal experience, IAD-SFO route). As a treat, you are invited to listen to the air traffic conversations between the pilot and tower. If you want to know what’s on each channel, you consult the printed guide. Otherwise, you pound the arrow keys as you cycle through the audio channels.

Seat audio high quality, simply select the genre from the touchscreen, no need to know the channel, or cycle up through bad rap, cheesy DJs or stale comedy to get to your selection.

Drink cart wheeled up the aisle occasionally, reminiscent of prison book cart experience you see in old movies. You may ring your call button to order out of cycle, taking chances with flight crew attitude.

Thirsty? Order drink from the menu, and they bring it to you. An innovation for air travel, a regular practice at every restaurant since the beginning of time.

Wifi available in the Red Carpet Club, conveniently located in many airports - subscription price varies based on Elite level, would cost me $400/year. Not terribly relevant to the in-flight experience, but needed for comparison in the column to your right.

Wifi available on-board the aircraft. Less than $10 per flight, or $50/month for frequent fliers.

Laptop power a rumor, and special adaptors possibly needed (never seen on IAD-SFO route)

Power outlet in every seat, no adaptor needed.

The prices are comparable. Would I rather stay with United, in hopes that I get upgraded more often to an in-flight experience that is better than the folks back in steerage? Or move to an airline that engages and connects every passenger? Where every seat is at least tolerable? My travel agent is concerned that I will not maintain "status" with a global airline, but I am choosing instead to help grow an airline that places the human experience first. We face tough choices each day, and the occasional heart-rending decision path. This simply is not one of them. Congratulations, Virgin America - my 200,000 miles (plus) per year are yours.


Photo used without permission from