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Flying high, Virgin's way

Airline's first Boston flights will have plenty of high-tech amenities, despite budget fares

By Nicole C. Wong
Globe Staff / February 9, 2009
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There's no escaping the hip, high-tech pulse of start-up carrier Virgin America, which launches service at Logan International Airport in Boston Thursday with nonstop flights to San Francisco and Los Angeles.

The purple ceiling lights evoke a lounge atmosphere. Music videos and video games fill touch-screen monitors built into seatbacks. Hand-held keyboards can be pulled out of armrests to send instant messages to other passengers. And trance music mixed by Paris DJs is piped into restrooms.

Whether the snazzy offerings will pull in or put off travelers in Boston - which will be Virgin America's eighth destination since its August 2007 launch - fliers may turn to the discount carrier because the price is right.

The Burlingame, Calif.-based carrier's fares out of Boston will start at $149 one way - undercutting the market by $15 to $40 each way, although competitors sometimes match prices.

"JetBlue would have cost me $100 more," said Denise Pasch, 60, of Washington, Conn. That's why the volunteer library trustee flew on Virgin America from New York to California last week to visit her daughter, who's an engineer for Boston-based Suffolk Construction Co.

As soon as passengers step aboard the souped up Airbus A320, they are immersed in softly glowing mood lighting, which subtly shifts through 12 shades of indigo, purple, and pink throughout the flight.

Hungry or thirsty? Order food or drinks anytime you want by using a nine-inch LCD touch screen monitor at each seat. Soon after you swipe your credit card along the bottom of the display, a flight attendant appears with your order - without blocking the aisle with a bulky cart.

Bored? Entertain yourself - for free - by tapping the screen to create a music play list from 3,000 popular MP3s, listen to 20 streaming radio stations, groove to 12 music videos, play 12 video games, or watch more than 20 channels of satellite television through Dish Network. For $7, you can watch one of 25 movies, and a dollar or two will purchase a premium TV show like "Entourage" or "The Office."

Or strike up an electronic conversation with other passengers by sending seat-to-seat text messages or joining a chat room. Both methods use the touch screen monitor and the QWERTY keyboard remote control that pops out of the armrest.

You can also plug your laptop, BlackBerry, or other electronic device into electrical sockets and USB jacks beneath the lip of every seat cushion. There also are ethernet jacks for Internet access, which will be turned on - and available wirelessly - on all Boston flights starting this week and on other routes by the end of June, for $12.95 per flight.

Why would Virgin roll out all the bells and whistles? Because it can, the company says.

As a nascent airline with just 28 planes, Virgin America could trick out its newly ordered planes much quicker and for far less money - $2 million per plane - than legacy carriers with huge fleets could. "We weren't burdened by 600 old aircraft," said Todd Pawlowski, a Virgin vice president.

Pawlowski was one of the original employees who brainstormed the in-flight experience in loft in SoHo in New York City in 2004. "We put up a great big piece of paper on the wall and asked anyone who came into the office - telephone guys, delivery men - 'What do you hate about flying? Put it up there. What do you want flying to become? Put it up there.' "

The executive team then borrowed ideas from boutique hotels, like the W, as well as from upscale restaurants.

"The attitude of most US carriers is that function matters and that efficiency matters, that it's OK to be utilitarian because all they're doing is providing basic transportation from point A to point B," said chief executive David Cush. "Our view has been we can provide basic transportation, but we can do it in a relaxing, appealing environment."

The results pleased several passengers during two transcontinental flights last week, including many who said they usually fly on a rival low-cost carrier, JetBlue.

"It's modern," said Melissa Gibson of Burlington, Vt., a creative director for a publishing company who was traveling on business with her boyfriend from New York to San Francisco. They're JetBlue frequent fliers, but that carrier's flight schedule didn't jibe with theirs that day.

Boston travelers will have a choice when the two discount carriers - each with leather seats and personal TV screens - go head-to-head on transcontinental routes in a few months.

JetBlue is reinstating service to San Francisco for the summer, starting May 1, and starting its planned but never launched service to Los Angeles, starting June 17. Those routes were suspended last year when jet fuel cost more than three times as much as it does today. The carrier said bringing back the routes has more to do with a long-term plan to expand Boston as the airline's second-largest hub, rather than with defending its turf from new competition.

"We've had continual growth in Boston since we opened" in 2004, said Marty St. George, a JetBlue senior vice president. Still, since JetBlue offers two more inches of space between each row of economy seats than Virgin does, "one thing you'll see us talking about more in the next three months is we have some of the most comfortable coach product in America."

That's debatable. Virgin can boast about other creature comforts. Its economy section's cushy black leather seats have lumbar support and headrests that can be tilted, raised, lowered, or curved to nestle your head (so you're less likely to wind up developing a crook in your neck if you fall asleep). The first-class section's plush white leather seats come with footrests - letting passengers feel as if they're in La-Z-Boy recliners - and lower-back massagers.

Virgin also offers a selection of healthy snacks and meals that can be purchased with a credit card. A Globe reporter enjoyed a $7 Romaine salad topped with basil, sugar snap peas, cucumbers, olives, parmesan cheese, and other ingredients and a $3 bag of Think Popped chips. In contrast, JetBlue pampers passengers with free snacks and is testing an in-flight food-for-purchase program on some flights. But hungry Boston passengers must bring their own meals.

Still, Virgin could lose the comfort contest due to some of its high-tech touches. A passenger poking the seatback touch screen too hard might as well be a kid kicking the seat. And the keyboards "are sooooo hard to type on and they don't fit in the hand very well," passenger Branden Just, 23, wrote during an in-flight text-message interview.

The entertainment system froze when a Globe reporter tried to buy an in-flight movie, and it lost the TV satellite signal for 13 channels for more than 10 minutes.

But a little turbulence is to be expected, whether it's with new technology or with a start-up's finances. The privately held carrier, in which Richard Branson's Virgin Group is a minority investor, reported last week that it lost $175.4 million for the first three quarters of 2008, on operating revenue of $259.6 million.

"These results are consistent with our expectations" because the industry has very high start-up costs, Cush, the airline's chief executive, said in a prepared statement. "We're confident in our business model."

So are others. Henry H. Harteveldt, principal airline analyst at Forrester Research Inc., said, "The airline is extremely popular with travelers under the age of 40 - and that's the future base of customers."

Nicole C. Wong can be reached at nwong@globe.com.

Inside the super seat
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Inside the super seat

Check out all the unique features on the passenger seats.
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