Monday, August 15, 2011

My Experience with a Virgin

Probably an inappropriate headline, but how else could I attract attention to a blog post about a trip I took on an airplane?  This may be my best click-bait since I was back at Penn State's The Daily Collegian and specifically took a page 7 story and linked it on our home page because the headline read 'Local Man Attempts Sex With Horse' . (One of the most read articles that year BTW)

More recently, and in no way connected with man-horse intercourse, I got the chance to fly Virgin America for the first time. (And when I say got the chance, I mean paid for a plane ticket and went to the airport)

Virgin America is another company started up by Sir Richard Branson, who pretty much established the caricature of an over-the-top billionaire (unless you count Standard Oil's Rockefeller dropping silver dollars from a blimp, which may have only existed in a Simpsons episode, but that's how I get my history)

Virgin, in a nice change of pace, is an actual low-cost airline.  I think a ticket for me to go out to LAX from Chicago was $200-$250, which seemed extremely reasonable and a welcome reprieve from Southwest (They may act all happy and sweet and chirp about not charging you baggage fees, but their ticket rates stink just like everybody elses).  It's also worth noting that American and United feeds from ORD to LAX have since dropped dramatically.  Yay mircoecon class principles at work.

Anyway, beyond the cheaper fare, I was also excited to try out Virgin's new planes, complete with a bunch of bells and whistles that most airlines don't have yet.

It may seem weird to get excited over a new plane, but considering I'm flying at least twice a week, it doesn't seem so strange right?  Exacerbated by the fact that I've been flying to and from Arkansas on a regional plane that may have been re-purposed since its first tour in Vietnam.  I'm going from mysterious shrapnel to leather seats and personal entertainment units, wouldn't you be excited???

We had a mid-morning flight out of Chicago (FYI, that's consultant's mid-morning flight, which means 8:45), and a short 4 or 5 hours later, we touched down in Los Angeles.  Details below:

 - First ever plane I've been on to have mood lighting.  I've never seen purple light on a plane, but the Virgin cabins seemed awash in it.  Like a trendy club, but filled with families and other travelers.

 - Personal Entertainment Units: Major points to Virgin on this, the centerpiece of their offering (at least to someone like me).  A small touchscreen panel just over the tray table lets you control a wide array of entertainment options.  If a touchscreen gets too much work, there's also a little tethered remote that's stored in the armrest.  Definitely slick.

 - Bonus Personal Entertainment Unit Fact: You can actually use them to watch TV as soon as you sit down on the plane.  Such a relief for those of us who hate talking to neighbors (or spouses).  I've always maintained that the longest distance on any airplane flight is between 0 and 10,000 feet when they release passengers to their electronic devices.  The only way I can cope is by bringing along a WSJ from the hotel (or if forced, USA Today) and hoping it gets me all the way up.  But on Virgin, I can just plug in and start watching TV, just like I could at home! (but no bonus points for enabling me to change into sweatpants, maybe someday Sir Richard)

 - Alternative Entertainment Options: The previous sections imply that TV is what you can use the in-flight unit for.  However, there are several other entertainment choices available.

On-Demand movies, which looked like a good set of selections, until the price tag of $8 was factored in.  I don't remember exactly what movies they were, only that I wouldn't pay $8 for them, and I'm a guy who paid $12 to see Thor

On-Demand TV episodes, which extended from premium content (e.g., Curb episodes for a fee), to less than premium content (e.g., all the NCIS LA episodes you can watch!)

On-Demand Music, which is in my view the most underrated thing they have going.  Virgin has a stable of radio stations to choose from, none of which were that exciting.  However, they also let you build your own playlist from a whole bunch of options.  I had to do work on the flight, and was able to put together a nice set of background music that wouldn't distract me too much.  The interface isn't the smoothest to use, but it was great for someone like me, a veteran of the Napster era who still has a hard time paying for music (but won't steal it either)

 - Cool Food Ordering System: You also control ordering of food or drink through the magical little screen.  I had to order a snack box just to test it out.  The credit card swiper didn't seem to be working that well, or I paid $246 for some Famous Amos cookies and a cup of Mott's applesauce (so maybe the kid's food looked better than the adult's, what of it?)  It was also nice to be able to order beverages whenever you want and get pretty prompt service (although I doubt they'd be as chipper if I tested out ordering three dozen Frescas)

- Also Cool, But Slightly Creepy, Social Functions: You might think the personal screen would turn everyone into a completely anti-social weirdo (for those who weren't already).  Perhaps in an attempt to avert such consequences, Virgin has added a chat function into the entertainment center.  What does that mean exactly?  It means you can touch a few buttons, pick another seat on the airplane (or other seats if you're into the group thing), and send them a chat invite.  Cool idea in theory, but I see definite potential for a high creepiness quotient.  In hindsight, I should've messaged the entire plane like it was an AOL chat room.  A/S/L?...29/M/7C.  I did message my wife, who was right next to me.  I think she thought I was being creepy.

- Lastly, I have to commend Virgin on its crack squad of flight attendants.  Above all else, they are cool and collected in the face of a crisis.  And I say that with no trace of sarcasm whatsoever.  Absolutely none.

OK, so they were the opposite of that, but let me explain the story.

We're cruising comfortably somewhere over flyover country, when out of nowhere one of the flight attendants flies by us in a full sprint to the front of the plane.  She grabs the other attendant and quietly talks in a panicky looking manner.  After a few seconds, she bolts back as fast as possible to the back of the plane.  I looked over to my wife, who was watching the Kardashians on E!, so she was completely oblivious.  Just when I start to tell her what happened, the attendant flies by again, like the Usain Bolt of flight attendants, and then almost like this was some kind of elaborate cricket match, reverses course and goes back, again at top speed.

On the list of things that might freak the heck out of the passengers, this wasn't number one, but it's not too far off from deploying the oxygen masks.

Finally, on her third lap of the plane, one of the passengers volunteered that he was a doctor and was there someone hurt.

At that point I think she realized no one knew what was going on, and she explained that the toilet in the bathroom was flooding.

Ah.  Definitely a huge emergency for row 26, but definitely NOT an emergency for row 7.  Certainly not something that warranted a huge sprint-inducing freakout.  It didn't exactly give me the most confidence that in the event of a water landing this lady would be able to help us as opposed to passing out right in the middle of the emergency exit and sending us all to Davy Jones' Locker.

So that was a bit weird, but I got to watch Law & Order, so in my book, it's still a good trade-off.  I'll fly Virgin anytime.

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