Part of the reason I drove to Seattle last weekend was that I was really anxious to try out Virgin America’s relatively new airline. They have already garnered a reputation for being fun and innovative, much the same way Canada’s West Jet is viewed by locals. Their planes are all new Airbus models, they have funky mood-lighting, and also plugs between all the seats so you can use your laptop during the entire flight. I even went so far as to email their media contact email address, and received a prompt, personal reply from the Director of Corporate Communications at Virgin America, Abby Lunardini, which was much appreciated.
In terms of cost, they actually weren’t much cheaper than the competition. Flying United or Alaska Airlines out of Seattle was roughly the same price, but I wanted to try something new so I went with them.
In my mind, most airlines are fairly equal these days. I mean, it’s not like the old days where custom service was #1. Most airlines treat passengers like cargo, and are generally unwilling to bend the rules in the name of customer service. One good example of that is when Air Canada stranded me in Toronto for a night a few years ago and made me pick up my own tab for a hotel and food.
For those of you following along, about 30 minutes away from the border last Friday the tire on my car exploded. I had allowed myself enough time to cross the border and get to SeaTac on time, but I had not accounted for a major car catastrophe. By the time I got my car back on the road again, it became apparent that I wouldn’t be able to make my flight in Seattle. Given the circumstances, I called Virgin America hoping they would simply move me to a later flight.
Unfortunately, Virgin wasn’t very sympathetic, and originally wanted to charge me $200 simply to move me to a later flight that evening. At this point I was stranded in my car in the border line-up, trying hard to keep cool as the temperatures pushed passed 32C outside. I told the agent I’d call her back as I investigated other options.
The thing is, my flight was only worth $219, so paying $200 to change a $219 flight seems like a big waste of money. I fired up my browser on my phone and attempted to find a cheaper flight out of Seattle. I figured if I could have found a United Flight for less than $200 it would have been cheaper just to throw my Virgin ticket away and buy a brand new one.
United was close to $200, but still more than the change fee. I thought at that point I would call Virgin America back and see if I could talk to someone a little more understanding. I ended up talking to a guy who was a bit more understanding of what had happened, and he presented me with a few options. His first idea was for me was to just show up at the airport and hope they could put me standby on another flight. Apparently that only cost $25 or something, but it seemed rather risky given that I had to be in San Francisco first thing in the morning. The agent also informed me that since there were 27 seats available on that later flight that there was a good chance I could get on it that way. At that point I was rather upset that they were trying to get me to pay $200 to change to a later flight, even though a good chunk of the plane was still empty. I mean, if they have tons of room on the plane, why not just let move me the flight by two hours?
Eventually he got his supervisor involved and they offered to waive the $75 change fee, still leaving me with a $125 fare difference. It wasn’t ideal, but I really didn’t have many options at that point so I just paid the price.
I made it to the airport with not much time to spare, and rushed onto the plane still with a sour taste in my mouth. The plane was basically how I envisioned it, and the Virgin America workers were generally friendly and helpful. The RED entertainment system though is still a work in progress, and many of the menu items on it lead to pages that say “coming soon”. I think they would be better off removing those items from the menu, since navigating to four or five pages in a row like that leaves a bad impression.
One nice part of RED though is that it utilizes Google maps. Most systems on airlines still use that dated GPS system that only shows a rough overview of where you are. Google maps provides a very detailed display of where the plane is. They also let you view it when you’re sitting on the ground, and even when you’re landing, which is definitely a nice change from those airlines that turn the system off during both of those periods of flight. The only thing I’d suggest is that the update the GPS coordinates a bit more often. Right now they only change every 60 – 90 seconds, which isn’t very exciting on final approach. If you could watch it move a little faster, it would be pretty cool.
On the way home I paid the $50 to upgrade to first class on the plane, just to try that out. The chairs are super comfy, and all the movies and alcohol are free. The flight was nice and smooth, and the attendants were accommodating and helpful. Certain features of my chair didn’t seem to work though, but it’s quite possible I just couldn’t figure out how to use them. In fact, both the person sitting next to me and myself had to get assistance from the flight crew to figure out where our headphones went into the system, since it wasn’t obvious at all given the setup.
I really wanted to write a glowing review of Virgin America. In this day and age, any airline that goes out of its way to help customers and provide a great user experience will stand out. I was just disappointed that nobody was really accommodating with regards to my situation, especially since I spent basically a full day in the car simply to try them out. I’ll definitely give them another chance in the future, but I most likely won’t make a point of driving to Seattle just for the experience next time.