The first time is never easy, especially if you have the word ‘virgin’ in your name. That was certainly the case for Virgin America, the new low-fares, high-service US carrier that either is or isn’t affiliated with Richard Branson’s Virgin airline and entertainment empire, depending on who’s talking. It took the San Francisco-based carrier more than three years to get off the ground after Branson associates first proposed it, in large part because it was affiliates of UK-citizen Branson who proposed it back in June 2004. After rejigging its ownership to meet the US rules, Virgin America finally took off on Wednesday the Eighth of August on its first flights, in both directions between New York and San Francisco.
Indeed the first day’s flight found weather was cloudy and generally unpleasant, much like the airline industry today. According to one journal that was on the scene, Virgin’s chief executive, Fred Reid, was late, and a high-profile guest, TV comedian Steven Colbert, missed the inaugural flight.That didn’t keep the airline from gaining plenty of free PR. One flyer was so eager to get on the first flight that he shelled out $5,400 in a charity auction for a coach seat that was priced at $138 for everyone else. Techies drooled over the carrier’s new cabin interiors, including subdued lighting, in-flight entertainment at each seat and its hi-tech massaging seats for first-class flyers.
Most industry analysts note that the public thirst for low fares may be the same, but the old-fashioned airlines have brought their costs down dramatically over the years, and are now able to compete with the new kid. Virgin’s base at San Francisco International (SFO) now has an array of low-fare carriers that it didn’t a few years back, and the airports that Virgin plans to serve – SFO, LAX, New York JFK – are now among the nation’s most congested and delay-plagued. And it is the generally unpleasant airport experience that is making it harder to win any kind of flyer loyalty, no matter how nice it is once a harried flyer gets on board.
Because any new airline needs to attract passengers with service levels as well as prices, it has to offer something different. It says it does with its on-board food and in-flight entertainment. Virgin calls its IFE system ‘Red’, after its trademark colours, and, uniquely among domestic carriers, offers intra-flight messaging, or instant messaging from one passenger to another. (Virgin Atlantic’s IFE already does this). It will also let passengers in both first and coach download music and create their own playlists from a 3,000-song archive. A real-time payment system will let Virgin America economy-class flyers order and buy meals on board. Whether these features – perks to some flyers, gimmicks to others – are enough to establish a brand is the question. JetBlue, which faces the greatest exposure to the new airline, is not worried and says it has seven years of brand loyalty built up.