Los Angeles — For my flight to Seattle, I jumped at the opportunity to try Virgin America for the first time. I’ve spent plenty of time analyzing the new airline andwhat it means for the global Virgin brand, but had yet to have the chance to see it first hand.
With the limited route network of this new airline, it did mean I would have to connect in Los Angeles to get to Seattle, however the tech and plane aficionado in me wanted to get hands-on with the unique experience in the cabin of N526VA, a four month-old Airbus A319.
When boarding I was immediately struck by the purple and pink signature mood-lighting has found its way onto Virgin America’s fleet.
Yet, the real gem on this A319 lives in the headrest at every seat.
Each seat’s IFE hosts a 9″ Linux based touch screen user interface called Red that allows users to watch live TV, watch new-release movies on-demand, hop into a chat room or instant message another passenger with the QWERTY keyboard on each hand controller, play games (including Doom – which this blogger enjoyed greatly) and create a custom playlist of songs from 240 artists you’ve actually heard of. As the flight progressed, all these events were saved in a section called ‘my media’ which allowed me to flip between the TV station I last watched, the movie I had rented (a free TEDTalks seminar with Sir Richard Branson), and my playlist, which was getting quite long packed with The Who, Bruce Springsteen and U2.
Put simply, it was IFE heaven. Don’t get me wrong the best IFE is still outside the window, but this system sure comes in at a close second.
Oh yeah, did I mention two power ports for every three seats…even in economy?
Another key feature built into the Red system is the ability to order food directly at your seat. There was one scheduled beverage service at the beginning of the flight, but later on I was able to request a soft drink (free of charge) or food (for a reasonable in-flight price) right at my seat.
I had a chance to talk to one of the cabin crew who generously gave me a tour of her in-flight office.
Her enthusiasm about the “2nd generation airline” she had recently joined was palpable, “It’s just more civilized,” she said excitedly.
She emphasized that the technology on-board enabled her to serve passengers better. In the rear of the aircraft next to the starboard exit door was a screen that displayed the items ordered by passengers. The system is a huge time saver for cabin crews also. In the past when you wanted something, you would ring the call button, followed by the immediate feeling of guilt that came with pressing the button, then the flight attendant would walk to your seat, ask you what you’d like, return to the galley to retrieve your request, walk back to your seat then return to the galley area. All tolled, that’s four trips up and down the aisle. With the new system, response and travel time is cut in half with only two trips required.
From the passenger perspective, the system is incredibly empowering. The ability to have what you want, when you want it puts an important degree of control back in the hands in the passengers who were previously bound to scheduled cabin service.
The Red interface is aching for expansion too. It already sports (non-activated) buttons for email & text messaging and a button labelled ‘www’ on the hand controller. Virgin America’s planes are already equipped for wi-fi, though the system is not activated, and it will be the first airline to have its entire fleet to have in-flight connectivity.
When that happens, this blogger will happily return to Virgin America to liveblog his trip across the United States.