Innovative airlines 2011: #8 Virgin America

Number 8 on our list is boutique low-cost carrier Virgin America. Launched in August 2007, the airline just reported its first net income and currently operates 34 aircraft with another 17 to be delivered in 2011. Virgin America has also just placed a 60-plane order which makes it the launch customer for the Airbus’ new A320neo jet, and expects to have a fleet of 80 to 110 planes by 2016.

With its iconic mood lighting, RED inflight entertainment system and social media savviness, Virgin America has quickly established itself as a hip operation tuned into the ‘digital lifestyle’. The ‘un-official airline of Silicon Valley’ is also the only U.S. carrier to install power outlets in all seats, and in May 2009 became the first U.S. airline to offer inflight WiFi fleetwide. In the past two years, Virgin America has also teamed up with Google to provide its passengers free WiFi during the holiday travel season. 

Further emphasizing its tech roots is Virgin America’s inflight entertainment system, called ‘Red’. Passengers can use ‘Red’ to watch live satellite television, chat with other passengers, play 3D games such as Doom, and offset carbon emissions for their flight. The system also alloes passengers to purchase snacks, meals, and alcoholic beverages from their seats via Red. Flight attendants receive the orders via a tablet PC on the food cart and bring the ordered items to the seat, thereby eliminating the traditional food and beverage service. 

Taking the RED system to a next level, Virgin America in mid-2010 added a number of innovative features to the system, including the first-ever seatback digital shopping platform, an open tab service, and Google Maps with terrain view. Virgin America worked with Panasonic and software firm CoKinetic to take Red to the next level, but the ideas came from Virgin America. Says Virgin America’s CEO David Cush. “If we were relying on CoKinetic and Panasonic to generate the ideas then everyone is going to have it. Inflight entertainment is a differentiator for us. We have creative people here, who probably think a little different than others.” 

Local food
In keeping with its California roots, San Francisco-based Virgin America’s inflight menus focus on seasonal, organic and locally-sourced ingredients. The airline also offers local micro-brew beers, wines and premium alcoholic drinks from California for sale. 

Social media
Virgin America is usually one of the first airlines to experiment with new social media techniques. For example, to promote its new service to Mexico, the airline in August 2010 offered people who used location-based rewards network Loopt Star to check-in virtually at SFO and LAX airports or at two taco trucks in LA and San Francisco, two tickets to Mexico for the price of one. Virgin America also just partnered with Topguest to award real frequent flier points to travellers that use their cellphone to ‘check-in’ virtually at Virgin America’s airport facilities. Meanwhile, for the launch of its new route to Toronto, the airline teamed up with social media ranking website Klout to give away free tickets to social media influentials in order to let them review the airline’s inflight experience.


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