Text by Ryan Bradley
Virgin America is as good as domestic air travel can get right now.
The first thing you notice is the mood lighting. It looks like a lounge:
purple and red and kind of cheesy. But whatever—it's different from
other airplanes. And that's the point. Richard Branson's Virgin empire
is based around this idea that experiences can be swinging, sexy, fun.
Even air travel. Even in the U.S. Even in this post 9/11,
world. So it's a pretty low bar that Virgin America is leaping over,
but they do it with a panache befitting the Branson brand.
As I write this I'm hurtling through the sky in one of their Airbus
A320's—one recently christened flier goes by the name "Air Colbert",
after Stephen–taking advantage of some free WiFi as
we cross the Midwest. The flight—from JFK to SFO—is sold out. All of
my flights on Virgin (and I've taken several) have been. They're also
consistently the cheapest deal from one coast to the other. Because
they are a small fleet, their operating cost is magnitudes lower than
their competitors, and they can offer lower fares by selling out all of
their flights. JetBlue works this way, too. Virgin also makes plenty of
cash in-flight, off their RED entertainment system (more on that in
a moment). The second best thing about flying Virgin, after the low
fare, is the fact that you often fly into and out of international
terminals, which are much nicer than domestic ones (LAX's Bradley
terminal is the exception), and have far more efficient security
checkpoints. Also better people watching.
Much has already been written about the in-flight experience aboard
Virgin. And, indeed, it's entertainment system is miles beyond what is
offered on other domestic airlines. But mainly it's the abundance of
choice—most of which you have to pay for—that puts its competitors to
shame. Order meals when you're hungry; watch recent movies whenever you
want to; chat in-flight with someone a few rows away (in typical Virgin
style, the possibility for in-flight hookups is nodded and winked at
vigorously during a hip, animated, pre-flight information video). Most
of this is pretty expensive, but the chatty flirting is free. The movie
I'm about to watch (The Hangover) is going to put me back $8. The
Reuben I just ordered was $9. But, the important point is that these
choices were my own. I'm not at the mercy of the airline. It's a small
victory—and barely a victory, since I'm out $17—but substantial
enough to put Virgin America atop a recent Zagat survey of U.S. airlines.
Tied for first was Midwest Airlines, another small domestic outfit.
They bake cookies for passengers during flights. It's pretty clear to
me that, after the stress and humiliation of getting through security
in an airport, it's the little things that matter the most.
- Nat Geo Expeditions