Friday, February 18, 2011

I Felt Kind of Silly Flying an Airline Called "Virgin"

I recently flew Virgin America round-trip between DFW and LAX.  My report:

First, does the “Virgin” moniker of the various Richard Branson ventures strike anyone as kind of . . . icky? When I think Richard Branson, the extremely public face of his airlines and other ventures, I think of a gentlemen who – although I know nothing of his social life, and his love life, if any, does not seem to be tabloid fodder – I strongly suspect of spending little time supporting virginity, and his entertainment interests have likely done more than their share to depopulate the world of the subspecies that possesses it. Nor do his ventures call forth an image particularly reminiscent of Roman Catholic iconography. So all this Virgin stuff seems kind of jokey to me, and I feel a little like a punch line flying Virgin America.

Especially since all of its airplanes have red tails.  Come on.

All right, enough of this distasteful talk. How was the travel experience?

Pretty darned good. The Dallas end of things is particularly flyer-friendly. Virgin America presently has few flights out of DFW and exactly one gate – E20 – so possibilities of being shunted from gate to gate, or having any trouble locating one’s flight, are eliminated.

At both DFW and LAX the in-terminal staff was courteous, friendly, and nicely-turned-out, as one would expect from a hip company like VA. At LAX, the chap who was assigned to float around the computer check-in area assisting folks was positively chatty, and even upsold me an exit-row aisle seat for $30.

Flight attendants ditto. The flight to LAX featured an attractive pair of Asian sisters, supervised by a very fast-talking young black gent – very VA-ish. A couple of beauties were also working the LAX-DFW flight. No fatties. Based on my very limited ability to observe the VA work force at DFW and LAX, I am guessing that among airlines, the male FAs and customer-service guys at VA are at the more, uh, fabulous end of the scale. Announcements were warm, boarding trouble-free. Employees seemed generally happy to be working for Mr. Branson's airline.

The highlight of preflight obligations -- actually, the highlight of the entire flight -- was the instruction in seat belts, exits, water landings, and the like. There is a monitor on every seat-back, and all of that information was conveyed via some extremely clever – funny, in fact -- and quite informative animation. (I think I learned more about that inflatable vest thing than I ever have watching a bored flight attendant.) Always wondered whether the Federal Aviation Administration had to pass on some of the snappy patter I’ve heard from flight attendants trying to liven up that pre-flight spiel. The voiceover patter on this animation is snappier than most, but entirely clear and inoffensive. I enjoyed it even more on the flight back, picking up some visual gags that I missed on the first viewing.

The flight out was an Airbus 319, a smaller jet (only 20-odd rows in coach). The cabin is quite attractive, lilt with a muted purple glow, and the seats are comfortable.  I was struck with how quiet this jet was. The A320 on the flight back to Dallas, a bigger plane, was even quieter.

The touch-screen seat-back monitors offer a variety of entertainment. I did not view any of it but I looked at the menus. You can shop, view movies and TV shows, order food on the plane, play games with your kids, chat seat-to-seat, and even send e-mail and text messages. (Some of these features are not yet activated but are promised soon.) I did hear a young man across the aisle say that he tried playing a game, but it was kind of slow.

Touch-screen monitors
I only noticed two problems with my flying experience.

(1) The first was not such a problem for me, but it could be for others. I mentioned those seat-back monitors. If you don’t turn them off, or use them for entertainment, they run a series of ads, many of them for recent movies. Some of these trailers are not what parents would want a child to see. (My particular codger-based problem is that I’m weary to death of the no-talent generation of non-entertaining, featureless, indistinguishable young actors and actresses in leering slacker tales.) No nudity or profanity, but inappropriate for children. So, parents and people with standards: You may want to switch off that monitor if you don’t want to use any of its cool stuff. And even if you don’t object to the content it’s beaming at you at the particular moment, if you’re doing something else at your seat (reading, composing a website article, sudoku) it is a distraction to perceive a flickering screen in the upper part of your field of vision.

(2) The control for some of the entertainment available in your seat is in the armrest. You can pop open the armrest and take it out. But if you don’t want to take the control out of the armrest, the controls are also accessible through a large hole in the armrest itself.

Monitor control removed from armrest; note large hole in armrest

Controller in the armrest, looking down into the hole
This large hole renders the armrest uncomfortable at best and useless at worst as a feature upon which to rest one’s arms. I tried to snooze a bit and the discomfort of that ditch in the middle of the armrest positively prevented it. This is not a small thing and detracted materially from the comfort of the flight.

So – not an A+, but a solid A to A- for Virgin America. If you don’t mind feeling like a punch line. Or if you have no interest in resting your arms.

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  1. I thought Virgin was named for Branson's record label, which began as a record shop selling "virgin" (I.e., previously unplayed) vinyl. Am I wrong?

  2. Fab, I'm sure you're right that the "Virgin" brand originated as you say. Its extension to other ventures, however, is obviously a conscious choice motivated by the associations the word brings up. I don't object to it, mind you -- I just find it a little oily.

    Thanks for checking in.