My Virgin Flight

August 16, 2007

Diary of Flight VX0238, Seat 1F

6:25 a.m.

Jumbo Jet TakeoffI was quite excited when I arrived at New York’s John F. Kennedy International Airport to catch Virgin America‘s transcontinental flight to San Francisco. Admittedly, I was also relieved that I made it in time. I must confess, I’m one of those guys who can’t seem to help but get to the airport at the last possible minute.

My expectations entering the terminal are pretty high. After all, the Virgin Atlantic flight I flew from London many years ago was decidedly the most fun I’ve ever had on a jetliner. What impressed me most was the enthusiasm of the flight attendants. There was a palpable esprit de corps and obvious pride they shared in wearing the Virgin Atlantic uniform. Their happy vibe was absolutely contagious. My partner Jackie, who flies Virgin Atlantic regularly and whose opinions I truly value and respect, still swears by that airline so I’m assuming nothing’s changed.

So back to JFK. It became apparent fairly quickly that I set my expectations a little too high. In fairness, I guess I was looking to replicate my earlier Virgin Atlantic experience simply because of the Branson connection. Even though I know Virgin America is not supposed to be a luxury brand, I must have been subconsciously expecting the proverbial champagne and caviar treatment.

Approaching the counter, it was clear that Virgin America was having more technology problems. The airline’s computers and printers were malfunctioning and a fair-size line still needed to be processed before we were due to depart in less than 30 minutes. Fortunately, I treated myself to a first-class ticket priced at a ridiculously low fare of just under $530 so my wait was less than five minutes. I was a bit taken aback when the woman checking me in apologizes for the delay (an airline employee offering an apology, what a concept).

I expected Virgin America’s check-in agents to be full of energy and enthusiasm and priming passengers for the “Virgin America experience.” Instead, they seemed poorly trained and overwhelmed.

6:35 a.m.

Flying first or business class is a rare perk for me – I only get to do it on the extremely (strong emphasis on extremely) rare occasions when American Airlines lets me use my miles to upgrade on my fairly regular flights to California. One of the best perks flying premium class is the express line through security. Unfortunately, the first class line is closed this morning, but no bother. It takes less than 15 minutes to clear security.

6:52 a.m.

I arrive at Gate 31 and give my ticket to the agent. I’m surprised by her general indifference and cannot help but suspect she once worked at one of the legacy airlines.

6:53 a.m.

I board the plane. Oh, pretty lights. Virgin America planes have what is known as mood lighting, which changes according to the time of day. We start off with a kind of neon blue, which makes me think about disco for some reason.

Finding my seat, I take off my sport’s jacket but there is no place to hang it up. “We still haven’t solved our closet problem,” explains Josue, the first-class flight attendant.

My white leather seat seems smaller than the business class seats on the 767s American Airlines uses on most of its California flights, but my spatial perception could be skewed because the man sitting next to me is bigger than me. I check out the massage function, but it is either broken or has such negligible pressure that it offers no value or relief. Then again, perhaps the feature simply isn’t active during the boarding process.

4:10 a.m. (I’ve switched to Pacific Coast Time)

An agent gets on the loudspeaker to announce the flight has been delayed because of a “personnel problem” that has been dealt with and says we will be moving shortly. Gee, I hope one of the pilots hasn’t been misbehaving.

4:15 a.m.

Alan, one of the pilots comes out from the cockpit, stands in front of the plane with a handset, and announces that our flying time will be five hours and some twenty minutes. He seems a tad awkward making the announcement standing in front of the plane; I later learn he is just a soft-spoken guy.

4:19 a.m.

We push off from the gate and are airborne in minutes. No gridlock at JFK? This is a first for me.

4:30 a.m.

I’m trying to figure out how to use all the technology my seat comes equipped with, but I can’t get my left armrest to close. Josue tries to help, but to no avail.

4:37 a.m.

Eureka! I fixed the armrest. I wonder if this is the first known instance when an airplane maintenance problem was outsourced to an airborne passenger.

5:00 a.m.

It’s breakfast time. We have a choice of French Toast or Scrambled Eggs. I take a pass on both. Josue then offers shrimp or some mini fruit balls served in a small plastic cup. (Shrimp for breakfast? That’s a new one for me.)

6:45 a.m.

I’ve needed to use the restroom for quite some time, but there has been a steady stream of passengers waiting to use the facilities. No signs of class struggle here; anyone can use lavatory at the front of the cabin.

While waiting for the lavatory, I chat with Josue. I haven’t seen much of him so far this flight and he explains why. Although he is only supposed to work the first class cabin, he was asked to help out in economy. There are only two people working back there, but Josue says they really could use a third.

Jackie had mentioned that Virgin America had a “name our planes” contest, so I ask Josue if he knows the name of our plane. He thought it was “California Dreaming”, but he wasn’t certain. He later tells me he learned that our aircraft has not yet been named.

7:15 a.m.

Normally when I get on a plane I fall asleep within 20 minutes of boarding. For reasons unknown to me, I have remained remarkably alert. I wonder if the air quality is somewhat better on this flight. If it is, they should make it one of their selling points.

7:30 a.m.

I’m having trouble figuring out how to use all the functions on my entertainment system, but am reluctant to immediately page Josue. Full disclosure: I’m not what you would call technically adept, so my difficulty probably has more to do with me than the system.

There are 15 radio channels to choose from, but I can’t quite decipher their classifications. I’m at a loss to explain “M Pop,” but it features some delightful Asian music. There are play lists from dozens of artists to choose from, ranging from Bob Dylan to Daft Punk (a band I’ve never heard of but suspect they don’t play folk rock). The fellow next to me seems to be having the time of his life making play lists, but I’m happy just listening to my iPod. Browsing, I see that there are some wonderful movies to choose from, including one of the best films I’ve seen in recent memory – “The Lives of Others.”

The best feature of all: The USB outlet on the right side of my seat. Having booted up more than two hours ago, my laptop battery would normally have died by now.

8:30 a.m.

I need to stretch my legs and opt to stroll to the back of the plane. I’m surprised at the limited legroom between the seats in coach, which I will be flying on my return flight home next week. The seats are as close, or possibly even closer, than American Airlines’ coach seats. I’m disappointed to see they are reclining seats, a common feature from the days when there was considerably more room between seats. I would argue that the additional comfort a person derives from putting their seat back is far outweighed by the discomfort the person behind them experiences because of their newfound cramped quarters and lost leg room.

8:35 a.m.

I strike up a conversation with another flight attendant. He tells me the aircraft we are on has had all sorts of issues with the in-flight entertainment system. Entire rows have lost their power, making for some rather disgruntled passengers given that the entertainment system is one of Virgin America’s selling features.

10:00 a.m.

We have already begun our descent. We are going to land on time, maybe even a couple of minutes early.

10:25 a.m.

I strike up a conversation with the guy next to me; he has quite enjoyed his flight. A larger man, he said he is not as comfortable sitting in coach and said that he found today’s first class seat more than adequate. Enjoying our conversation, I forget to record the actual landing time, but I believe we arrived a few minutes before we were scheduled to do so.

10:29: a.m.

Goofing around in the office on Tuesday, Jackie dared me to pocket everything I can find with the Virgin America logo on it. So, when the opportunity arose as we were leaving the plane, I asked co-pilot Alan if he might have a pair of plastic captain’s wings. He doesn’t, but offers to help me find something else with a Virgin America logo on it. We walk into the airport together.

I’m impressed with how much Alan loves working for Virgin America. He previously worked at a regional carrier I’ve never heard of and had applied to work at Virgin America as soon as he heard about it. He says the airline is truly committed to offering customers a wonderful flying experience.

I mention to Alan the seats in economy seemed as close, and maybe even closer, than on the legacy airlines. Alan doesn’t know the dimensions, but said that because Virgin’s seats are considerably thinner, there is less lost leg room when they decline. I mention that the air quality on the plane seemed considerably better and another passenger from the flight standing nearby offers that he was thinking the same thing. The passenger then went off on a tangent about how dirty JetBlue planes are and how much he preferred Virgin America. I found out later that that same passenger received a free voucher for another Virgin America flight because his in-flight entertainment system wasn’t working.

By the way, Alan said he doesn’t know why the air quality seemed so much better except perhaps it was a new plane.

11:40

I arrive at baggage claim and, voila, there’s my luggage. Even though I was delayed getting to the carousel by my chat with Alan and a subsequent call back to the office, I am surprised at how few bags remain from my flight. It seems like Virgin America’s baggage handling is considerably faster than the legacy airlines.

Later that Day

Looking back, it’s clear to me that I arrived at JFK with an unfair mindset. After all, it was still the airline’s first week in the air and it was probably unreasonable on my part to think things would run smoothly. Jackie was undoubtedly right in her comment the other day about there being a reason theater critics let the cast get a few performances under their belts before giving a show an official review.

Virgin America has some kinks that must be worked out, which I am sure they will if anything I’ve read about their customer-centric culture is even half true. Regardless, the airline is undeniably trying hard to offer a very different, very positive onboard experience. Given the general disregard that the major airlines have for the flying public today, Virgin America deserves widespread support for that reason alone. I, for one, am certainly rooting for them.