The Comfortable Cutting Edge of Internal Flying
As I’m writing this, I’m getting a little high. The Captain’s informed us we’re now out of San Francisco airspace, well soon be up at 37,000ft and that means New York is 5 hours away. The WiFi’s strong, the onboard entertainment is booted up and in about 570 words time, I’ll be kicking back to watch a couple of the latest releases.
Virgin Amercia launched 3 years ago, now flies out of 11 cities of the continental United States (plus Los Cabos, Toronto and soon Cancun) and they do it with a lot of the class of Virgin Atlantic. They’re not quite sister companies; I flew just before Christmas 2010 and miles accumulated on Virgin Atlantic had about the same purchasing power on Virgin America as a pocketful of warm chocolate money (reciprocity is promised for 2011). But the rest looks pretty similar, with just a few translations from English to American.
There are three seat classes, (Main Cabin, Main Cabin Select and boringly, First). Main Cabin has 32 of seat pitch, MCS sits 3 x3, with a Jet Blue equalling 38 seat pitch more than enough for a 6ft1 journalist with an oversized laptop and a hangover – and in First, you sit 2 x 2 with 80% recline and 55.
I missed the irony that pervades Virgin Atlantics brand, it offers a strange comfort: not the smug-English thing but the fact that if you’re confidant enough to use irony in your communications, it means you’re pretty damn confident of how well you know your audience. Virgin America’s pre-flight safety video uses a scratchy illustration styling and before they show you how to put on a seat belt in the picture, the VO does acknowledge that this section only applies to the 0.001% who have never used a seat belt before.
The planes are A320s (34, all new; with some more on order). They’re new and they’re clean. The last time I flew internal in the States, with one of the US majors, it was like sitting in a students dorm room: one of those new purpose-built rooms where, despite there being hardly any furniture or any space to make a mess it’s still a mess. This time, the seat’s plastic mouldings aren’t scuffed, the seat back screens are clean and it doesn’t have any of those little signs of wear that sometimes put you off (like when the push button on the toilet flush has been worn away by thousands of grubby fingers before you).
The stewardesses are not the typical Virgin Atlantic trolley-dolls; in fact they look old enough to be their mums. Which I like. Not in a weird way, I hasten to add. I mean that there’s a quiet friendliness in people who are no longer striving to alter the plot of their lives. You couldn’t get a more genuinely warm welcome than that from Claudia at SFO, retired from United and now back in uniform for pin-money and the love of it, I guess.
The onboard entertainment system is advanced. More than just the usual movies and sounds (which alone would mark it out as distinct from most internal carriers); it’s also the food ordering system. Rather than waiting for the trolley, or going off to hunt a crew member, you type your requests into the seat-back entertainment system, add them to the cart (free if you’re in MCS) and the order pops up in the galley. The worry with this kind of set up is the lack of a confirmation loop, which means you worry about how long it will take your snacks to reach you. First you think it’s kind of neat, then you start drumming your fingers… Are they busy on my order or just bitching about Samantha up in First? Why isn’t there an I’ve got a hangover option on the ordering system so they can prioritise me…come on, I ordered this probably 90 seconds ago…..oh, that’s for me? Thank you. On Flight 26 from SFO to JFK, I timed it and the beer and nibbles arrived less than two minutes after I’d sent the request from the seat-back.
So now, here I am. Somewhere high above an unknown State. The beer’s arrived and it’s cold. The snacks are salty. Toy Story 3 is loaded on the Media Player. All that remains is for me to wish you happy travels and, with the WiFi strong, I just press send…