Don’t expect Virgin America to fix the horrible US airline problem

This week I flew Virgin America round trip from Los Angeles to New York JFK for the first time.  Having heard rave reviews about this new airline, I decided to give it a try.  My experience was so disappointing that I will never fly Virgin America again.

Launching a new airline to compete with American must have seemed like an irresistible challenge to Richard Branson, considering the horrendous quality of the typical US airline.  Great idea, lousy execution.

The time was ripe.  Ever since 9/11,  US air travel has fallen into an abyss of deep despair.   Misery begins at the airport, where the frequent flier has to put up with plenty of headaches even before reaching the jetway: sullen security personnel shuffling dully through routine searches, long lines of rookie travelers who are seemingly mystified by TSA rules, then, finally at the gate, endless delays with no explanation,  garbled announcements blaring on the loudspeaker, unhealthy food options and $3 water, lousy seating and no power outlets in the lounge area.  The waiting areas are overcrowded because the airports weren’t designed for huge numbers of travelers arriving 2 hours early, milling around while the aircraft is hastily cleaned.  Half of the passengers mill around looking for a seat.

The typical ordeal continues during the boarding process because US airline flights are routinely oversold and refugees from cancelled flights are scrambling for standby seats.   Seasoned travelers haul everything onboard so they can avoid the risk of losing their checked baggage.  So you are herded into narrow metal tube crowded with anxiety and desperation. Typically the airplane has been sitting on the tarmac without power, baking in the sun for hours:  in the height of the summer travel season, walking onboard a parked airliner from the jetway is like walking into a sauna.  If you fly from JFK on a summer afternoon, you can expect to sit sweating on an muggy airplane for two or three hours while your jumbo jet queues for a takeoff slot.  And once the plane are finally airborne, it’s best to keep your expectations low:  brace yourself for miserly service from irritable flight attendants who should have retired years ago, nasty cheap beverages and indecent meals.  In flight entertainment consists of insipid straight-to-video films that you wouldn’t rent from Blockbuster, with badly modulated audio pumped at high volume through terrible headphones only to be defeated by the relentless high-pitched whine of the jet engines.  Planning to work during the flight?  Good luck when you are shoehorned into a coach seat and the passenger in front of you reclines so far that you cannot open a laptop.  After a few hours in the air, you can expect your lower back and tailbone to hurt where the high density seat cushion was replaced with a cheaper, lighter cushion to reduce weight (and thereby reduce fuel consumption).  Would you like a nasty Dacron pillow to add a layer of extra padding to your seat?  That will cost you an additional $5, even though the pillow was very likely previously laying on the filthy floor or crushed under a dirty suitcase.   Just as you drift into a shallow sleep, you’re jolted awake by a high-decibel announcement from the cockpit or the crew.

Given the miserable level of quality of the typical US flight  it’s no surprise that an outsize ego like Branson’s felt like he could improve upon the experience with aplomb.  And Virgin America deserves credit for coming up with some interesting innovations.  But the product is ultimately just as terrible as other American airlines, only different.

I flew Virgin America from Los Angeles to NYC and back again this past week.  Of course both flights were beset by the typical delays and hellish airport conditions (I’ve flown out of JFK nearly every week this summer and each flight has been delayed by at least two hours)… but those glitches are not really attributable to Virgin America.

Instead, consider how Virgin’s cleverly-conceived-but-poorly-executed innovations diminish the in-flight experience.

  • Groovy lighting. When you walk on board, the entire aircraft is mood-lit in a purple and pink glow with all of the windowshades down.  This nightclub atmo is a typical Branson flourish, but it would have been better to provide decent reading lights.  It’s basically quite dark inside. On both flights, the reading lights were miscalibrated, pointing in seemingly random directions (not towards my lap where my paperback book was).
  • RED entertainment center. On paper, this feature sounds pretty cool:  TV, on-demand movies, plenty of digital music,  even video games (including an old favorite, DOOM).  Bad news: the system just doesn’t work.  On both flights, the RED system crashed several times and had to be rebooted repeatedly.  During one flight, we couldn’t see any TV, just the default infomercial for DirectTV looping endlessly.  Plus, the idea of putting an interactive touch screen in the headrest behind each passenger’s seat is just plain gormless:  imagine how annoying it can be when the passenger behind you jabs at the screen, endlessly drumming at the back of your skull.
  • Two bathrooms in coach. The aircraft is configured with two bathrooms for first class (a grand total of four seats!) and two in the back of the plane for 30+ rows of coach.  Imagine a completely full coast-to-coast flight with only two bathrooms for 200+ passengers.   Throughout the entire flight, a long line of uncomfortable passengers stood in the narrow walkway, waiting for the restroom.  Passengers who were seated in aisle seats in the back of the aircraft enjoyed the dubious pleasure of the endless bathroom queue brushing past them during the entire six hour flight.   Plus, thanks to Virgin’s slightly-wider seat (for the ever-expanding American rump, I suppose) there is much less room in the aisle than on other aircraft.  As a result, every time the flight attendant had to carry a food order to the front of the plane, they pushed past the long toilet queue, bumping the seats and brushing the shoulders of seated passengers.  Two hours into the flight, the people seated in the last ten aisle seats looked utterly miserable.
  • On demand beverage and food service. In theory, this is a great idea: on Virgin America, passengers can order food and drink whenever they like and the flight attendant will just bring it. But in practice it really doesn’t work.  The passengers are supposed to place their orders via the RED entertainment center, but of course that’s impossible when the system crashes as it frequently does.  And, moreover, the kitchen is in the back of the aircraft with the restrooms, which means that flight attendants have to push their way past the throng of passengers queuing for the two restrooms.  On my flights, they wheeled out the old fashioned beverage cart and provided the usual uninspired beverage service.
  • Water bar. A super idea:  a cooler of bottled water available any time. Best of all, the water is free and unlimited.  But there’s a problem.  Since the water bar is located by the bathrooms, anyone who wants a water has to push past the long line of people standing in the queue for the restroom, bumping past the sad passengers in aisle seats.

At least Virgin America is cheap, right?  Wrong.  The price for this flight was not especially cheap.  I found much cheaper airfare on American, JetBlue, and US Airways.  Okay, granted, those airlines don’t offer splendid service either, and they haven’t introduced any innovations lately, either.   But Virgin offers nothing superior to these bottom-tier airlines.

If you fly a lot, then you are probably resigned to the fact that air travel in the US is a horrible experience.  Several hours of your life will be erased in a dull blur.   The best that can be said about US air travel is that it is forgettable.

I had high hopes that Virgin America might change that by lifting the bar at least a little higher, but unfortunately this airline is no better than any other.