Virgin America Takes to the Skies

The newest domestic air carrier in the US, Virgin America, made its much ballyhooed debut this week, and while the airline aims to bring “the Virgin way” to the beleaguered US airline industry, there are still a few bugs in the system.

Virgin’s fouder Richard Branson has businesses all over the world including airlines, railroads, limousines, and all kinds of other companies. Experts say his strategy is to study an industry carefully, identify sources of consumer dissatisfaction and figure out a way to give customers what they want.

One point of emphasis for Virgin America has been to cater to what David Wilkening of calls “a traveler’s gadget-conscious lifestyle.”

The seats have places to plug in laptops and MP3 players and the airline has the nation’s first in-flight email and text messaging system. Everyone gets their own touch-screen television monitor with a huge selection of options, and passengers can even text message one another through a seat-to-seat chat system. Passengers in different seats can even play the same video games.

That’s the idea, anyway. Humphrey Cheung of TGDaily said he had some trouble finding the right plug for his computer.

“The flight attendants I asked either didn’t know where the plugs were or they mistakenly thought the plugs weren’t installed yet. How’s that for rushed training?”

“The seat back pocket has a handy chart that shows where the plugs are and I’ve got to say that they are in one hell of an awkward spot. They are placed under your seat and you’ve got to navigate your plugs completely by feel to plug your cables in. Good luck in trying to see the plugs during flight because there just isn’t enough space and your neighbor will wonder what you may be doing under your seat.”

There is also an automated drink ordering system that’s supposed to speed up beverage delivery. And it might, once the passengers and crew get the hang of it.

“The ordering system is a great concept,” Cheung writes, “but almost all of the passengers (me included) forgot to confirm the order by tapping a few extra buttons. We all thought that merely tapping the Coke icon would get us a Coke, but like web-based shopping carts you also have to click checkout and confirm.”

“The flight attendants brought out the drink cart which had a big LCD screen on top and this is where the real fun begins. The passengers are expecting their drinks without a fuss because they think they’ve ordered it successfully, but the flight attendants had just a few orders showing on their LCD screen. Long story short, the flight attendants scrapped the system and resorted to walking up and down the aisles asking people what they want.”

On the plus side, Virgin’s low fairs are starting a mini price war with other airlines, which will make air travel even more affordable.