Virgin America Airways and on-demand ordering

Yesterday I took my first flight on Virgin America airways, on the IAD-SFO run. Virgin offered a tremendous price (about $130 one way) but it’s worth examining how they have made use of technology on their planes. Mostly I usually end up on United, which is by far the largest carrier at SFO. Because of this, I fly enough on it to earn status, and that it turn provides a seat in their Economy Plus section which has more legroom, priority boarding and in theory, an empty middle if there are empty middles. This is 90% of the value of the status — the other main value, ability to upgrade, is hard to actually make use of because business class is usually full. The extra legroom is surprisingly pleasant, even for a widebody individual like myself who would much prefer extra width if I had a choice.

Other than Economy Plus (and some very nice business class on some of the long-haul planes,) United is falling behind other airlines. It would be hard to recommend an ordinary coach seat. The one big amenity that more and more other airlines are providing is power in coach, in particular 115v AC power which is more flexible than the older 15vdc “Empower” system United uses in business class. The main downside of the 115v connections is they tend to be mounted under the seats, making them hard to get to. Air Canada has put them in the personal video panels. Virgin placed them under the seats but high and forward enough to be reached (if you knew what you were looking for) but also so close as to make wall-warts bump against your legs. Virgin also offered USB jacks down under the seats, also hard to get to. Even if you don’t want to put 115v up higher, USB charging jacks are better placed in the video console/seatback I think.

American Airlines has a mix of DC and AC power, but still makes it available in coach. Continental has put EmPower on some planes in the front half of coach, but some newer planes have AC power all the way through coach.

Virgin’s in-flight entertainment system is quite fancy, though it offers only 24 channels of satellite TV for free, and then only if you brought your own headphones. The movies and premium TV are quite expensive — $8/movie for example. It offers chat rooms that nobody used, games that I saw some people playing and some of the other usuals (map, audio, etc.) Different, however, was the ability to order food and drinks on the touchscreen. In fact, this was the only way to order food and drinks — they do not bring a meal cart down the aisle. Even free drinks are ordered on the screen, but since they are free you can also just ask for them. When I ordered an overpriced sandwich ($10 captive prices) and drink, it came pretty much right away. From a user perspective, aside from the price, it worked very well. Credit card payment was done at the seat, so flight attendants never played the usual game fumbling for change, and it allowed a wide array of items to be for sale.

One very annoying bug — the satellite TV service displayed all the 4:3 channels stretched to widescreen, making everybody look fat. There seemed to be no setting to change this. If you used the “TV chat room” feature, where you could chat with people watching the same channel on your flight, it displayed it as a 4:3 box, but fairly small. They should make the chat room function work across all their wifi equipped flights in the air at any given time, or for that matter other airlines in the same system, until there are too many people in a chat room after which they can be split. I did not rent an $8 movie, perhaps they are properly displayed widescreen. I would want my money back if they are not.

Contrast that with the United flight out, which had food for sale on the standard cart. The cart has always been a frustrating thing. Aside from blocking the aisle, if you are hungry or thirsty it can be very frustrating to watch it inch slowly down the plane towards you. Distracting if you are in the easily distracted hungry state. On the UA flight, they had switched to credit cards but took quite a long time to process each card. They complained that there were too many items on the menu, making them not aware of it all and slowing them down. My seatmate’s card would not work, so they gave him the food free.

The Virgin system came with a remarkable downside, though. It created 5-10x the amount of aisle traffic I have seen on other flights. It made it very difficult to sleep in an aisle seat. For most of the late night flight, the flight attendants were constantly moving up and down the aisles, and at a much higher speed than ordinary passengers do. As a result my elbow was constantly being bumped, and not lightly, and it felt like the floor supports were less strong because my seat would shake quite a bit each time they went by. I was in the middle of the plane. For those at the rear, it would be even worse. A window seat seems like a must for sleeping on Virgin, though I find them too cramped when doing anything but sleeping. The flight attendant told me he much preferred this method to the old cart method, except on the LA to New York run, where for unknown reasons, ordering goes on at triple the rate. I am glad I don’t fly that route.

Virgin managed to hide the electronics for their in-flight entertainment systems nicely. On several airlines, the computer for the box is huge, and takes up a lot of the legroom beneath several of the seats in every row. I was shocked at how big the box was on a recent Continental 777 flight. It made me feel that somebody had forgot that we had learned to miniaturize computers long ago. All these boxes run linux, which is clear when they reboot, as they seem to tend to do.

The use of touchscreens is positive and negative. The touchscreen response times are quite slow, and the desire to press them hard causes tapping on the seat of the person in front of you. It is often worth it to get out the control if you plan to use the touchscreen a lot, though you can’t do everything with it. Response times were never zippy though. The iPhone does better (and is a lot smaller and takes a lot less power too, and is probably much cheaper!)

The Virgin system promised some things it did not yet have, like electronic books to read, and access to SMS and external chat systems and E-mail. The flight offered wi-fi service for $12.95. That was tempting (just to play around) but too high a price when my plan was to sleep for as much of the flight as I could. Of course, the question of what a good price is for internet access remains unanswered. $13 is half the price of the worst hotels, and not much more than what airports charge for a “day” of access — sold to people who don’t need it for more than half an hour, of course. Considering we’re in the air, the price would be tolerable if I intended to make serious use of it or for a transcontinental. I would be curious to see how well a VoIP call would do or a Skype video call. There would be something very 21st century about having a video call while on the airplane. My seatmates might not agree. (The same internet service is also showing up on some routes on United, American, Air Canada and others.)

As you might expect from Branson, the planes have a very space-ship style look, but were comfortable. They had done a much better job of embedding the giant video controller (which has a mini-keyboard on the back) into the armrest. It is accessed from the top, and as such the armrest is not much bigger than normal. I was quite annoyed that Continental, for example, puts their keyboard on the side of the armrest, making it impossible to use while mounted, harder to get out, and effectively making the seat about 3/4” narrower! Seat width is very important to passengers and Continental made a terrible choice here.

Like more and more airlines, you could raise the armrest if you have no neighbour (or a friendly neighbour) but it only goes flush when the seat is upright. If you recline the seat, you can’t raise the armrest — and thus the reason my elbow would get bumped while trying to sleep. I’ve considered designing something with a small bracelet and string — sort of mini-handcuffs — to hold your aisle-arm in so that it doesn’t drift to where it will be bumped. Crossing your arms works but not forever.

Virgin uses white LED lights which are very nice for reading — but also among the most disturbing to nearby sleepers.

One final interesting difference — Virgin sells their extra-legroom seats (bulkhead and exit row) as premium seats, at a higher price. In addition to the legroom, it offers free food and entertainment, like in business class. Because of this, while they had an empty aisle seat in the exit row, they refused to let somebody stuck in an ordinary middle seat move to the seat. The exit row seats had long tray tables (yay!) rather than tray tables in the armrest. Tray tables in the armrest take 1” off the width of the seat, so I never like them, even when they offer more legroom. I might consider one of these seats for a future flight though the price was more than double the super-cheap price I paid — which explains why the seat was empty.

These high-tech improvements are nice, though of course the core values remain mostly the same — space and comfort, duration of journey and convenience of schedule — and innovations in those areas will make the most difference, but are also the most difficult. Overall I would rate VA’s efforts fairly well, though the traffic issue may change my mind on the delivery to seat question. I wonder if it might be possible to build a robot for delivery of small items to seats, one that runs along a track in the ceiling, then lowers when the passenger pushes a button after warning people in the aisles to pause. The robot could also do trash pickup for drinks and snacks, perhaps dropping them in the garbage bin without human help. Moving drinks by robot without spillage is another issue, though — see the comments for more.

If you were in a window

If you were in a window seat, then a robot would need secondary tracks in each row to reach you. (Otherwise you rely on your seatmates being awake.) Then the robot could move to directly above your seat and then wait for you to pull it down, so there's no making people get out of the way. On the other hand, my head nearly touches the ceiling even w/o any robots in the way.

Window seat

That is a problem. Of course if it could also swing horizontally it could deliver to you. There would be rails in the ceiling, and on them would be a unit which is say 4’ long, 3’ from the center in one direction, and 1’ with counterweight in the other direction. It would lower on cables when nobody was present in the aisle and use a simple infrared lidar to avoid hitting people. It would then rotate to reach window seats if desired. These newer planes have good headroom, I don’t see anybody’s head being close to the overhead bins/light panel.

To avoid spillage you either need a dynamic stability robot or just serve only bottled and canned drinks, or have sealing lids to snap on for mixed or poured drinks.

Note as well that such a robot system would probably reduce the number of flight attendants needed, which readily pays for it. Not that the flight attendants would like that. And while the union would never stand for it, there’s no reason you could not even have the copilot pitching in serving food!

In the current system, all the FAs do this concentrated feeding of the pax, and then they stand around in the back waiting for sporadic requests. In Virgin’s system people just order when they want and that spreads around the ordering, allowing it to be handled with fewer people, I suspect, though there would still be rushes. If you liked the screen could show you where you were in the queue. In fact you could even order on the web in advance in either system and get an early position if you are really hungry.

Role of Flight Attendants

I don't work in the industry, but my understanding is that the primary role of flight attendants is safety - particularly rapidly emptying a plane in an emergency. The fact that they can serve drinks is an incidental bonus.

Therefore, the drink-serving robot may not result in less staff, and may not result in cost-savings.

Furthermore, it is hard to imagine a robot system that would weigh much less than a 50kg flight-attendant, and hence use more fuel.

For safety?

Flights have been cutting FAs quite a bit of late, so no, it’s not about safety. Yes, in the tiny, tiny fraction of flights where there is a safety issue, the FAs are there to help, but this is not what pays their salaries.

If you just wanted safety FAs, you could offer to train passengers on safety, and give them a $30 discount on their flights (if they are one of the first 5 trained passengers to book.) Way cheaper than an FA. If not enough trained passengers book on board, then send an FA to do that flight if you truly need a minimum number of safety officials.

FAs would still put the food in the dumbwaiter robot, though I could imagine fully automated vending. Of course, outside of the main eating hours, there could just be vending machines at various places in the aircraft to serve the food, but this would still mean all that aisle traffic.

The robots would indeed weigh less than the FAs. There is not much too them — a track in the ceiling, a few motors.

on-demand service

One other reason to like the on-demand service is that I often nap on a plane, and it's nice not to worry about waking up for when the cart comes by.

I would agree fully

Especially if not in an aisle seat, but I found the constant traffic meant it was hard to sleep at any time. Of course, I don’t fall asleep easily on a plane (even in the window) so there may be no hope for me.

co-pilot handing out drinks

Hello, I would prefer the co-pilot not take on waiter duties on my flights. He's there to take over in case the pilot drops dead, remember?

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