After months of clearing Department of Transportation hurdles over the foreign ownership of U.S. airlines, Virgin America launched its inaugural flights today from New York's JFK airport and Los Angeles to San Francisco. The flights mark the entry of yet another airline into the already crowded U.S. market, but Virgin America hopes to steal some of thunder by offering low fares, high-tech airplanes, and a hip image.
The Airbus A319 and A320 fleet features mood lighting that will change from day to night, and leather seats with adjustable headrests. What's more, Virgin America's planes are a techie's and gadget lover's dream, with such frills as full USB and electrical power connections at every seat, both in first class and economy. Using the ports, you'll be able to charge portable gaming devices, MP3 players, laptops, cameras, and cell phones. You won't be able to make calls of course, even with Virgin Mobile handsets, but your phone will be fully powered up for your yammering needs once you arrive. And later on, the airline will activate ethernet ports at every seat, so you can surf the Web from 35,000 feet.
The seat-back video screens will offer a wealth of programming beyond the normal in-flight safety video. Not only will you find satellite TV from the Dish network, but also you'll get live TV, streaming satellite radio, audio books, an MP3 library with 3,000 tracks, and 25 pay-per-view movies. You'll be able to manipulate the screen through a remote control set into your seat's armrest. I used such a remote recently on a Cathay Pacific flight and loved having so many buttons right at my fingertips.
While those goodies alone are enough to make Virgin stand out from the airline pack, the strangest entertainment offering is the ability to chat with your fellow passengers via the seat-back screens. After registering a name for your particular seat, you'll be able to view the names of fellow flyers and then send a text message or invite several people to a chat room. And for your messaging needs, the aforementioned remote control includes a full QWERTY keyboard.
So why would you want to do this, you ask? Well, as Virgin Group Chairman Richard Branson said this morning on the Today show, you'll be able to introduce yourself to a "pretty lady" sitting nearby. As some might find the whole idea of in-flight texting a bit stalkerish (you don't have to answer the messages), they'll be pleased to know that Virgin America prohibits communication that is "indecent, obscene, pornographic, libelous, defamatory, harassing, threatening, abusive, hateful, or violent."
You'll also be able to use the screens to order food or drinks from the minibar. As is the case with most domestic flying these days, the food and drink will cost extra--but with fares between San Francisco and JFK at just $278, I'm more than willing to fork over cash for my peanuts.
Yet no matter how many frills you pack into a plane, you can't escape the almost inevitable delay. The flight from JFK was delayed by almost an hour due to a storm.