The Gizmo Airline Report: Virgin America

Glaskowsky reviews an almost-free transcontinental flight on Virgin America.

In a way, this story is left over from CES 2008, where I attended a blogger party hosted by the Parnassus Group and sponsored by, among other companies, Virgin America, the US domestic airline counterpart to Virgin Atlantic.

The party was a lot of fun, and all the sponsors did extensive giveaways. I got a flight suit from Intel and Zero G, a private company that offers "weightless" (parabolic trajectory) flights. Alas, I didn't win a Zero G flight, but I did win a free flight on Virgin America. In fact, I think pretty much everyone at the party won one of these prizes-- apparently they gave away 80 flights.

Virgin America A320
A Virgin America A320 Airbus aircraft Virgin America

The free flight coupon, which was good for one round trip in the main cabin (that is, coach class) anywhere Virgin flies in the US, was valid through the end of May, so when Montalvo Systems shut down in early April I was able to spend some time planning a trip.

Although Virgin America flies to several West Coast destinations, I spend most of my time on this end of the country anyway. The two choices that seemed most attractive were New York and Washington, DC. Ultimately I decided I could have a better time in DC and not spend so much money, so that's where I went.

Buying the ticket on the Virgin America website was pretty easy once I figured out that the site requires customers to apply discount codes in advance rather than also accepting discount codes when paying for a flight.

I had to pay $21 in fees for the flight, and I chose to pay $25 extra for an exit-row seat, but the discount still amounted to $277.20. Normally I'd say such a meager amount wouldn't influence my posts here, but it's probably the case that I wouldn't be writing about Virgin America otherwise...

The airline charges $25 extra for "premium" seats at the bulkheads and exit rows in the main cabin. As a fairly tall guy, I like this idea-- it discourages people from taking these seats if they don't need them, and makes them more likely to be available for those of us who really need them.

I was able to get an exit-row seat on the return flight, but not on the flight out. The seat pitch in the main cabin is adequate for moderately tall people such as myself, but only barely. It's about like American Airlines, which is the airline I usually fly on.

Virgin America seems to have learned some valuable lessons from the success of JetBlue on these transcontinental flights. Virgin provides fairly comfortable leather seats in the main cabin and attractive leather massage chairs in first class. The airline's Airbus airplanes (my flights were on A320s) are attractively decorated inside with color-changing "mood lighting" (which remained set to blue and purple on my flights).

Virgin provides a high-quality multimedia entertainment system with a 9" touchscreen LCD at every seat. The system, called Red, carries 24 channels of live satellite TV (sourced from Dish Network), 20 channels of live satellite radio, a good variety of on-demand TV shows and music, movies, simple games, and even chat rooms. I checked frequently but never found anyone in the chat rooms on the way out; on the way back, this feature was disabled.

The system has menu options called "Read" and "Shop", but they were not active. It seems to me that unavailable options ought not to be displayed.

The Dish Network channels are standard definition, not HD, but are stretched to fill the widescreen LCDs, which I find annoying. The broadcasts didn't come through reliably; on both flights, there were long periods when some of the channels were experiencing trouble, even in level flight at our cruising altitude under a clear sky. Sharp turns caused the satellite receiver to fail entirely, but I suspect there's no good way to solve that problem. On the return flight, four of the channels (ESPN, ESPN Classic, BET, and BBC America) were carrying Dish informational programming instead of the intended content.

I was pleased to see that the music videos and some of the pre-recorded TV shows and movies are offered free of charge. For example, I found several of the TED Talks and an episode of Patrick Norton's Tekzilla (an old one-- episode 17 from January 2008).

When watching the pre-recorded content, there are pause, rewind, and fast-forward controls. These functions aren't available for the live broadcasts-- no in-air DVR yet, sorry.

I also appreciated the live flight map based on data from Google Maps, although it doesn't offer a satellite view or a really close-up view of the road maps. It seems to me that these features would be useful, but I suppose that providing them would require much more on-board storage. The map can pop up over whatever TV show you're watching, which makes it convenient to check the progress of the flight during commercials. There was an odd problem with this feature-- the black pixels on the map overlay were actually transparent, so legends on the map (city names, etc.) were intermittently illegible depending on the TV image. This function worked well on the flight to DC, but was not reliable on the flight back. Even after we landed at SFO, the system showed the airplane was a few miles southwest of the airport.

The system can also be used to order food, which seems like a great idea, assuming it doesn't run the cabin crew ragged. Some of the things you can order are free, like sodas, but most items are sold to generate additional revenue. Accordingly, "Eat" buttons are easy to find on the wired remote control and the on-screen menus.

Entrees-- salad and sandwich type stuff, no hot food-- were around $9; snacks were $1 to $2. These prices were competitive with those of airport shops, and it's certainly more convenient to get the food onboard-- but most airports offer more variety. A turkey-bacon wrap sandwich I ordered came without the expected accessories (napkin, mustard, etc.).

One of the most valuable features on board-- to me, at least-- was the provision of two 110V outlets for each set of three seats in the main cabin. (Presumably the folks in first class get one each.) Finally, there's a legal way to power and recharge my laptop in flight. The DC outlets found on some airlines won't charge a MacBook Pro, although they do let the machine operate without running down the battery further. Virgin's AC outlets are oriented horizontally, rather than the usual vertical arrangement in most wall outlets, which made for a fragile connection to the MacBook Pro's power adapter, which frequently fell out.

Virgin America also offers Ethernet and USB jacks at each seat, but these are currently useless. When I hooked up to the Ethernet jack, my laptop detected the connection, but didn't receive an IP address, so there was no way to communicate over it. I can imagine this feature could be useful for business travelers who need to collaborate on some project during the flight, but until a DHCP server is provided, even peer-to-peer networking will likely not work.

The USB jack, allegedly provided to allow customers to recharge cellphones, iPods, and other USB devices (and, according to the on-board Welcome guide, to hook up a full-size keyboard for the in-flight entertainment system, an amusing notion), didn't even provide power.

Bottom line-- the electronics and the in-air food ordering are fun, but not enough to make a difference for me. I will certainly consider Virgin America for future travel, but I'll continue to choose airlines based on price, schedule, and compatibility with my existing frequent-flyer miles, as I've always done.

Coming up next, a few museum reviews! I spent most of my time in DC doing the usual touristy stuff, and I ran across a chunk of ENIAC, the world's first general-purpose digital computer, in an unexpected place...

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Tech Culture
About the author

    Peter N. Glaskowsky is a computer architect in Silicon Valley and a technology analyst for the Envisioneering Group. He has designed chip- and board-level products in the defense and computer industries, managed design teams, and served as editor in chief of the industry newsletter "Microprocessor Report." He is a member of the CNET Blog Network and is not an employee of CNET. Disclosure.

     

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