Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Like A Virgin

I've been doing a lot of traveling for business lately and flying out of Baltimore usually means Southwest or AirTran, neither of which is associated with luxury service. Southwest is literally a flying bus with cattle car boardings that have only improved slightly with the new numbered line system. Southwest gates no longer look like a middle-aged version of the line for a Phish show when everyone arrived two hours early to camp out for the coveted head of the A-line. AirTran's sole redeeming value is XM radio at every seat. Otherwise, it's just another generic flying aluminum tube.

So when I started hearing raves about Virgin America, I arranged my schedule to make flying out of Dulles practical. That meant a 4 am wake-up time to make the 7 am flight. Just barely.

The first thing you notice is the ambiance of the plane. The sides and aisles are lit up like a hipster lounge with trance music piped in. Then rather than the school cafeteria seatback tray, the hardshell glossy white cocoon looks like an overgrown iPod case. Some of the trays even have cup holders so you don't even have to pull out the full tray to spill cranapple juice on yourself.

But the real selling feature is the video touchscreen at every seat. It has over a dozen channels of satellite TV, with CNN being the most popular, but SciFi and Cartoon Network also available. If those shows bore you, they have video on demand. I gorged myself on free episodes of Entourage that caught me up with what I missed from last season. They also have plenty of pay choices available ranging from $.99 for network reruns to seven bucks for every movie in my NetFlix queue. But even that wears thin. By the end of the return flight, I was watching bad student films and obscure music videos just to sample everything free. If you forgot to download a three month old Diggnation podcast, Virgin is your airline.

The seat back is also how you order food and drinks. After the drink cart makes its first pass, you have to enter an order on the screen and the stewardess, er, flight attendant, uh, in-flight team member (yes, a new euphemism is born) brings it to you. Between orders, these Ian Shrager hotel doorman rejects hide in the back and referee the line to the two lavatories the folks in steerage are allowed to use.

I've given up ever being fed on a plane again, so I've developed a habit of smuggling sub sandwiches on board in my carry-on bag. Good thing too, because the onboard food prices made the airport concession choices look like bargains.

All-in-all, a cross-country flight on any airline in the middle seat when the husky guy with the window seat needs a Flomax prescription makes any Gitmo enhanced interrogation sound delightful. But you can't blame Virgin for trying to make it more bearable. If only the little remote controls for the video screen didn't dig into your elbow when you tried to actually use the armrest.

And they are having some great rookie season specials. Pick the right flights and a round trip to the coast would be less than three benjamins if the TSA didn't demand their cut. Which is a real bargain. The same flight on Southwest would have cost $450 with stops in your choice of Phoenix, Denver, Tahoe, or Vegas.

I'll be taking the wife along on the next trip and we booked Virgin because of a new travel rule I have instituted:

Never pay more for Southwest.

Even if it is only a break-even deal once the extra gas, parking, and travel time are included for the trek to Dulles. And at least Virgin made me feel shiny and new.

BlatantCommentWhoring™: What is your favorite airline?


Dave2 said...

Of those I've flown (and that's quite a few), Singapore Airlines is my hands-down favorite.

Anonymous said...

Unlike you, I guess, I'm an unabashed Southwest fan. I think the flying bus nature can be somewhat overstated, and over the past five years the service on the other major airlines has declined to the point that Southwest is actually a more pleasant experience all around, not least because everyone who works there is actually cheerful and happy, instead of the angry, tightly wound folks you get on the airlines that could go bankrupt or merge at any moment. With Dulles being an enormous pain in the ass to get to from Baltimore City, Southwest is usually the easiest choice as well, and you can get a direct flight from BWI to just about anywhere.

Of the other airlines, I'm a pretty big fan of JetBlue (which I fly every year from JFK to Buffalo as part of our annual multi-city Christmas extravaganza).

yellojkt said...

Never flown Singapore but it's service is legendary. Perhaps in another post I will talk about some other airlines. Air France is the way to go to Europe.

Southwest is fantastic for shorter non-stop flights, particularly if you can snag an exit row or bulkhead seat. And in a way, having to change planes on a cross-country flight is a nice break.

For business travel we justify the extra money that Southwest charges for the theme-park style head-of-the-line pass. I just feel the stares of everybody with a C-ticket glaring at the "business class" passengers.

Anonymous said...

Air France is great if you happen to get one of their planes with the seatback entertainment consoles. The food is OK (weirdly enough, for good food British Airways is the way to go). But they lost my luggage, or rather deliberately sent it on later to make room for the luggage of some other people whose luggage got left behind on an earlier flight. According to the baggage guys at LAX that is not uncommon for Air France. They got behind at some point, and for all I know they're still trying to catch up.

Anonymous said...

Have you seen the announcement about "FlyBy" lanes at BWI for Southwest customer who either have "Business Select" or "A-1 Rapid Reward" status that not only get's you priority boarding but quickly through security as well.

yellojkt said...

That would be nice since I'm a Rapid Rewards member. I'm too cheap/lazy to go through the trouble of getting a Clear Pass. I have yet to see a line at any of those stations.

Mooselet said...

I fly very infrequently, so I don't have a favourite. We do have Virgin Blue, which I'm going to assume is related to Virgin America, and the Hermit likes flying with them. Qantas is pretty good, if expensive. My neighbours flew to South Africa via Singapore Airlines and were very happy with the service.

Jeff and Charli Lee said...

I always get stuck with the generic Northwest since they headquarter here. I can't imagine they're going to survive the economic meltdown and fuel price inflation.