Getting high with Richard Branson: Virgin America's virgin flight

Virgin inaugural flight

Virgin chat

Virgin America kicked off service in the United States today. As regular BB readers may recall, they kindly invited us to name one of the planes a while back.

I flew on a VA inaugural flight from Los Angeles to San Francisco just now ('California Dreaming' flight number VX0846) to check out the new service, and uploaded the iPhone snapshots you see here from the plane. More of them here: Link.

These planes are wired. There are two 110-volt power outlets for every three seats (1:1 ratio in first class), USB ports, two WiFi access points on board (front and rear, broadcasting SSIDs today, but not delivering connectivity yet pending regulatory approval), ethernet at every seat (which connects you to a planewide network — mile high LAN parties, anyone?). EVDO is planned for transmitting data back to the ground (email, txting — not active today, should be by early '08). I'm told AirCell will be providing the wireless connectivity.

My flight buddy today was Artur Bergman from O'Reilly Radar. His account of the inaugural flight is here: Link. He shot the chat UI snapshot here, more great snaps from Artur here: Link

So, in three words: Virgin America pwns. Here are ten reasons:

Virgin inaugural flight

Virgin landing @ SFO: cupcakes

(1) Most comfortable coach I've experienced on any domestic carrier. Roomy, well-designed seats, nice leg room, seats sit at a pitch that maximizes stretch space.

(2) Obscenely comfy white leather seats (with "massage" feature) in first class. Pretty reasonable first class fares (I suppose they'll be higher later, but they're comparatively quite low right now).

(3) They're using open source software in every place possible. Linux galore. (Hey, how soon before there's a hack or prank, I wonder? If someone mile-high-goatses a VA plane, there's always a unicorn chaser in the fleet to soothe).

(4) In-flight, seat-to-seat chat. Tabbed, even! I think you can have like 3 or 4 threads open at once. Now you can bitch about babies crying or barf-inducing turbulence — with emoticons! Or group chat around each TV channel (while you watch TV), or join topic-based chat rooms.

(5) Google Freakin' Maps. I heard details of more add-in features they're planning to integrate with the maps soon — not bloggable yet, but when they're live, they'll be mindblowing.

(6) In-flight entertainment and info system has a super user-friendly GUI, and it's touchscreen! You can also use it to order food. For text input, there are little handheld qwerty keyboards that slide in and out of your armrest.

(7) Games. Including Doom. They're planning an open source game design competition, will feature winning games on the flights.

(8) In-flight text messaging and email are apparently on the way, as are pay-per-download music sales (mostly Virgin artists at launch, I'd guess).

(9) Movies are fairly recent ones you'd actually want to watch. Large selection of international fare for non-English-speaking passengers. Wide TV selections. You can get channels like IFC and Current in-flight. Music videos. Scan TV listings in a programming guide, see what's on when. You can set reminders for yourself for TV shows you want to catch.

(10) Some great internet content on the way. They're doing deals with internet video content producers and other video sources you'd never expect to see on a plane. They plan to have in-flight broadband in place next year (pending FAA approval) for even more frequent video content uploads. Incidentally, they have a smartly designed related method for system software updates. Many cool things about the IT design behind VA.

Virgin inaugural flight

Much of the suck you're familiar with on other domestic airlines is absent, and there are a lot of nice little details that add up to a pleasant, smart experience. I kind of want to buy an all-you-can fly ticket, and just consider a seat here as a second home. Whoever called Virgin America "Airline 2.0" (Digg guys?) nailed it.

Virgin virgin flight
For instance: no harsh lighting. The cabin was softly lit on our daytime flight in purple and pink, the mood lighting is different at night. Cabin interior feels like a big happy iPod. White round plastic edges, metal surfaces and black mesh stowaway dividers. Sleek without feeling cold. Many white surfaces, now that I think of it, but you actually never see bright white — it's all bathed in relaxing light. The feel isn't clinical or sterile, it's pleasantly mod.

Some simple spatial details are beautifully conceived. One of many small examples: those entertainment console box things that stick between your feet on other airlines, thieving precious legroom? They're under the floorboards here. Another example: there's a nice little ridge along the underside of those overhead compartments that serves as a grip, so you can pull yourself out of your seat to stand up.

As an aside, I understand that Virgin America design director Adam Wells is responsible for much of the environmental look and feel decisions, and the in-flight entertainment smarts are the domain of Charles Ogilvie.

The airline will be based out of San Francisco International Airport (SFO) — international terminal, for now, don't understand exactly why.
When we arrived at SFO this afternoon, Richard Branson, SF Mayor Gavin Newsom, Virgin America CEO Fred Reid, and others held a press conference. Newsom announced he was declaring today "Virgin America" day, and various landmarks around the city will be bathed in red light to commemorate.

I'm so sick of bad experiences lately on airlines like JetBlue and Southwest. I really hope the Virgin America experience two weeks, two months, or ten months from now is as great for all customers as it felt for invited guests on this launch day.

Virgin launch in LA

Virgin inaugural flight

Virgin launch @ SFO gate

Previously on BB:

  • BoingBoing names a Virgin America plane: "Unicorn Chaser"