Could Interactive Media Help Save the Airline Industry?

Virgin America Subtly Transforms Air Travel by Empowering Customers -- at the Touch of a Button

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Earlier this month, as the airline industry was imploding once again -- with American Airlines grounding hundreds of thousands of passengers during its faulty-wiring debacle, and as pilots were talking about possibly grounding the proposed Delta-Northwest merger for fear of getting burned in contract talks -- I was happily flying on my new favorite airline, Virgin America.
To sir, with love. Now bring me a snack box!
To sir, with love. Now bring me a snack box! Credit: Nancy Kaszerman
An airline that, amazingly, knows how to make passengers happy because it understands not just the business of travel but the art of interactive media.

No surprise there: Virgin America, a cousin of Virgin Atlantic, was founded by media master Richard Branson.

First, I should note that certain elements of Virgin America's aesthetics are a bit too over-the-top hipster-y for my taste. There is moody purple and pink accent lighting in the cabin and annoying techno-lite music piped into the lavatories. And when the airline kicked off its Los Angeles-to-Seattle route April 10, I couldn't have cared less that indie celebrities such as actor Lukas Haas and the band The Donnas (who performed at the VA gate at LAX) made the scene.

But Virgin America excels where it matters: where the customer sits. And given that VA focuses on long-haul flights (I've flown the JFK-to-LAX route four times so far), that makes all the difference.

The Virgin Atlantic customer experience is built around something called Red, an in-flight entertainment system you interact with via a 9-inch seat-back LCD touch screen and a corded remote control/keyboard that nestles into the arm of your seat. Now, plenty of airlines, from Virgin Atlantic to JetBlue, have good in-flight entertainment systems, but Red ups the ante in several significant ways. It shows on-demand movies and satellite TV, of course, but it also has video games, a nicely curated collection of music videos and more than 3,000 MP3s. There's seat-to-seat text chat, and Virgin will add satellite-enabled internet access, including Wi-Fi if you're lugging your own computer, later this year. But the truly brilliant thing about Red is that it uses its elegantly designed, Linux-based touch-screen interface as a virtual refrigerator that you can peer into anytime you get thirsty or hungry.

If you want a specific soft drink or coffee or tea or a bottle of water, you select it via Red's full-color photographic menu, and minutes later a flight attendant delivers it (free). Same thing with paid snacks and meals and alcoholic beverages: You add stuff to your Red "cart," swipe your credit card -- Virgin America is a "cashless airline" -- and whatever you ordered likewise magically appears minutes later.

This results in a subtle but rather massive paradigm shift. No more tedious, intrusive "chicken or beef?" routines. You eat and drink when you want to, not when the cart rolls around. The flight attendants seem happier, because they have to make only one trip to serve a passenger. There's no more griping, either, when certain food and drink items run out; they just disappear from the real-time menu.

And perhaps most important, by treating food service as a media function, Red allows you to preserve your own immersive-media cocoon. (No more listening to flight attendants listing the drinks that are available or the snack boxes remaining for nearby passengers.)

In a way, Virgin America is just doing what all smart purveyors of media are doing these days: empowering the customer by tweaking interactive media interfaces to offer near-instant gratification. But in the context of a hermetically sealed tin can hurtling through the air, it feels revolutionary. As a Virgin America customer, you're no longer infantilized; you're no longer at the mercy of a bunch of overworked sky mommies who will probably just end up disappointing you.

You are -- gasp -- in control.
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