Will Virgin America Revitalize Airline Customer Service?

On August 8, 2007, during the peak of this summer's travel nightmares, Virgin America arrived on the scene with a promise to bring quality customer service and enjoyability back to flying.

While they have some interesting-sounding perks like self-serve minibars and wider seats (19.7” in coach, as opposed to 17.2" on most American flights), it's questionable whether gimmicks like mood lighting that changes with atmospheric conditions and planes with monikers like Air Colbert and Jefferson Airplane can really make a flight more pleasant when you're sitting near rambunctious children or someone who doesn't wear deodorant. Also, they've managed to introduce another inconvenience to flying in that you must have a credit card to pay for any of your in-flight entertainment or food. A better idea would have been to actually equip staff with change for customers' cash purchases, which is apparently too difficult a task for other airlines to handle.

Many of Virgin's promises for revolutionizing airline customer service are already offered by all other airlines, like the ability to check your flight status online or by phone. Other pledges are really just basic courtesies that should be extended to anyone forking over $300+ for a service, like attempting to notify you of a flight delay or cancellation and delivering your baggage to your destination on-time (how hard is it, really, when that baggage is on the same flight you are?).

Virgin America also doesn't promise that you won't be bumped (though they do say that those passengers to be involuntarily bumped will be the people who checked in last, which is better than the seemingly arbitrary criteria used by other airlines). Being able to order food from your seat at any time instead of waiting an hour for the cart to roll by, choose from 25 pay-per-view movies and 3000 MP3s, and plug in your laptop at your seat are probably the biggest perks this airline offers right now, in addition to their rather low airfares. They also base your frequent flyer rewards on the dollars you spend instead of the miles you fly.

However, their routes are very limited at the moment: they only fly to San Francisco, Los Angeles(LAX), Las Vegas, New York (JFK) and DC (IAD). Right now, not all of these cities are connected to each other. Flights to Seattle and San Diego are on the way in early 2008, and the airline hopes to have expanded their routes to thirty cities over the next five years (assuming they last that long).

Their fleet currently consists of only fourteen planes, with eight first-class seats per flight. The major perks for first class flyers are massaging chairs, free movies, and free meals. I wonder how annoying those massage chair rumblings are for your rowmate, though?

Though I'm very curious as to whether Virgin really has managed to create a more enjoyable flight experience, I doubt I will be flying them anytime soon as I plan to fly with nothing but frequent flyer miles this year. Because some of Virgin's selling points are so basic, the cynic in me wonders if they are really interested in providing a better flying experience or just want to provide lip service to the concept in the hopes of winning over disgruntled customers from other airlines. I suspect that more changes than the ones Virgin has implemented are needed to truly make flying tolerable, let alone enjoyable.

Have you flown Virgin America? If so, what did you think? I'm terribly curious.

Photo by Johnny Vulkan

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