The eternal question again presents itself: why is this man smiling? He’s losing his job in February, he has nowhere to go after that, and he got booted from his last job before this. Still, Fred Reid’s happiness today is both real and apparent as chats to “guests” on board the first flight out of Washington of Virgin America, the new airline he helped found. Virgin, or VAm as insiders call it, took off in August after fighting for federal clearance for more than two years; its first routes linked its home base at San Francisco International with New York, and its so Washington Dulles were the first to follow.
Today Fred’s happy because ”we’ve worked so hard to get the airline going that it’s an achievement that will last well past what I call my ‘sell-by’ date” of February 2008 when he will have to leave his duties as chief executive officer under an agreement with the DoT. The agency demanded Fred’s head to satisfy objectors who claiargued he was beholden to Virgin Atlantic sun king Richard Branson, who invested in VAm and lent it the considerable brand value of the Virgin name and bright red trademark logo.
VAm though is American hip rather than Cool Britannia and Reid’s really proud of the cabin interior and aircraft environment, differences that are immediately apparent to flyers, er, “guests” the moment they step on board the A320. The interior ‘mood lighting’ casts a soothing soft blue cast meant to replace the bus terminal/police interrogation room ambience. The planes have nine moods or colours in all, and Reid recollects that getting suppliers to meet VAm’s specs was a real challenge. We had to tell them we’d do it ourselves if they didn’t come down on their price. We were ready to do that.” Colours are important: the in-flight entertainment system is called RED to reflect as much. It’s one the features that Fred’s proudest of, and “getting the glitches out of RED before my sell-by date is one of my goals”. Red features seat-to-seat instant messaging, 18 channels of live satellite television, games, 25 pay-per-view films, moving maps that allow viewers to zoom in and a lot of music that can be downloaded. Charles Ogilvy, VAm’s IFE, guru says that RED has had problems but crew members were learning to solve them. “We spent a lot of effort on things like having a classical music selection went beyond the predictable stuff like the Four Seasons.” He says that live on-board Internet starts by next year some time.
Reid explains that VAm stresses IFE after seeing how JetBlue used its then-exclusive livetv to build loyalty and a reputation as hip. As a carrier with a large number of transcontinental routes, VAm had to consider the guest experience, he says. Reid says that the carrier will spend its first year or two building routes from San Francisco rather than developing a network. “We’ll go to the top 12 or 15 cities that people in San Francisco want to go; we don’t expect very many if connecting passengers. We will be a San Francisco airline.”