Staying Connected: i in the sky

My first few trips on Virgin America -- Los Angeles to New York, the Bay Area, and Boston -- gave me hope that domestic air travel might become more consumer-friendly. Virgin America's prices, the convenient facilities, the online amenities...many of them only promises at that stage, but still, things as simple as being able to order something beyond Cheez-Its and to plug a laptop into an electrical outlet far exceed the usual Greyhound Bus-style services offered by most American carriers. The passenger experience on Virgin America is more like what you are likely to enjoy on a Scandinavian or Asian airline than on Delta or United. Wouldn't Virgin America's reasonable pricing and quality service force other companies to improve their operations, at least on the routes they have in common, if only to remain competitive?

Since May, however, much has changed. Now when you book on VA, you have to keep in mind that, depending on the ticket you select, you may be hit with a $15 per item charge for every piece of luggage you check in. If you're traveling light, this is no great hardship; as long as you don't forget to follow the TSA rules about toothpaste and pocket knives, you can still store one carry-on bag in the overhead compartment for free. If you have luggage to check, however, the fees can add up. When comparing your $99 fare on Virgin with a similarly priced ticket on, say, Southwest, you may find that you are paying more than you intended to enjoy Virgin's mood lighting.

Similarly, Virgin's much-ballyhooed wireless access (also available on American, Delta, United, and Air Canada) is less than promised. For one thing, what they don't tell you until you're on board is that it's pricey -- $12.95 for coast-to-coast flights; $9.95 for trips under three hours. Like most high-priced hotels and some airports, Virgin America hasn't realized that clients get irritated when overcharged for an essential service. Also, at least on the Los Angeles-Boston flight that I'm currently on, the wireless doesn't work. Although the instructions call for you to "Click Buy to get started," there is no "Buy" to click (the best site navigation moment comes on a page that says only "purchase a Gogo Pass" and "The page you attempted to view cannot be accessed until you purchase service"). According to the cockpit, the problem isn't with equipment on the aircraft, but is a "system wide" outage by the provider, Airtel's Gogo Inflight Internet. Oh, well. Email will just have to wait until I'm back on the ground in Beantown.

One other thing. When I attempted to listen on the plane's "interactive environment" to Cassandra Wilson's superb new album, Loverly, it sounded like someone was in the studio with her crumpling paper sacks in front of the microphone. The next cut I tried, from Diana Krall's Look of Love collection, worked better, although the sound quality on VA's branded earphones was that of an AM portable radio circa 1958. After I switched to my laptop's Phillips earbuds everything was rosy, though, even Cassandra Wilson (and it was a pleasure to discover tracks by Sun Ra amid the more lcd offerings in the jazz section). I know you get what you pay for, but why bother to install "3000 mp3s" and then provide crappy headset to listen with? Bottom line: if you're flying Virgin America, skip the $2 earpieces and pack your own listening devices.

Still, in VA's defense, it has to be said that the few inches of extra space throughout the cabin make a huge difference: a little more leg room, less banging into people and hardware when walking the aisle, room to turn around in the lav. And there's no denying that hummus, baba ganoush and veggies are a vast improvement on pretzels and dry-roasted peanuts.

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