Virgin America: The airline that deregulation forgot?

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Christopher Elliott

Someone apparently forgot to tell Virgin America about that whole deregulation thing.

You know, the sad story of how America’s legacy carriers, who once competed for your business based on service, began thinking of their seats as commodities – and us as cargo.

Virgin America is unashamedly retro, when if comes to service.

Don’t look for solemn-faced ticket agents trying to make their weekly quota of luggage fees. They’ve been replaced by helpful employees with real-looking smiles. The flight attendants seem genuinely happy to be there, a sharp contrast to the tired counterparts at some of the more established carriers.

Even the way in which they describe us – we’re “guests” instead of “passengers” – conveys a sense of hospitality that you don’t hear too often.

I flew from Orlando to Los Angeles, Virgin America’s newest route, on Thursday evening. I’m posting this on my return trip, thanks to a GoGo wireless connection.

I haven’t had a domestic flight like this since … it’s hard to remember. I scored an upgrade on a Delta transpacific flight in September, and this was every bit as good.

Before I go on, a disclaimer: I’ve been writing about Virgin America for a while, and I’ve admired it from afar. The airline has been quick to respond to customer complaints, and I’ve interviewed its CEO, David Cush, several times – most recently last month, when Virgin started its Orlando service.

Cush has invited me to fly with Virgin America as its guest on numerous occasions, but I’ve never needed to go anywhere — until my cousin’s wedding in Palm Springs this weekend. So I decided to take Virgin up on its offer.

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I’m really taken aback by how different this flying experience is, from the blue lights in the cabin (see photo above) to the hard-pumping techno piped into the restrooms.

And I could write a whole post about the inflight entertainment system, which is in a class by itself (you can order food, chat with a neighbor, track your flight progress, but best of all, it’s easy to use). I will resist the temptation.

Instead, I wanted to focus on the service aspect, which, even if you strip away the brand-new A320s, the creature comforts and the mood lighting, would still set Virgin America apart from almost anyone else flying today.

The service is – well, Virgin-esque.

Understated. Somewhat British. A little edgy, too.

The inflight announcements are self-deprecating and poke fun of passengers at the same time, including their tendency to leave their brains at home and forget how to use a seatbelt, to the ones who take souvenirs from the plane, like seatbacks.

Virgin also has a pretty decent on-time record. For the second quarter of 2010, it recorded an 86 percent on-time ranking, which would have placed it third among all U.S. reporting carriers for on-time performance during the quarter, according to the airline.

I got the sense a few times that Virgin America was trying really hard to set itself apart from the rest of the pack. On our flight from Orlando to LAX, the pilot greeted passengers and made the initial inflight announcement from the front of the plane, where everyone could see him.

I’ve only seen that a few times before, on a JetBlue flight.

The other place where I found myself saying “wow” was when I checked in at Los Angeles earlier this morning. I felt as if I was at a rave, and I mean that in a good way. Again, there was this trendy music – maybe more like lounge music – playing. There were floral arrangements. The employees looked happy to see us.

Check in anywhere else, and you feel a sense of dread. A serious ticket agent is ordering you to squeeze your bag into the tiny template and trying to collect a $50 excess baggage fee from you. Here, I felt as if I was going to a party.

But the proof of Virgin America’s greatness will not come from the many times it excels in the customer service department, but how it responds when it falls short. Remember when JetBlue was worshipped by the travel media? Remember how they turned on JetBlue after the 2007 ice storm?

When Virgin America has a major customer-service meltdown (everyone does) it will be interesting to watch what it does. From what I can tell, it has the kind of corporate culture that will allow it to overcome such an event, not be defined by it.

(Photo: Bind r done dat/Flickr Creative Commons)

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Christopher Elliott

Christopher Elliott is the founder of Elliott Advocacy, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization that empowers consumers to solve their problems and helps those who can't. He's the author of numerous books on consumer advocacy and writes three nationally syndicated columns. He also publishes the Elliott Report, a news site for consumers, and Elliott Confidential, a critically acclaimed newsletter about customer service. If you have a consumer problem you can't solve, contact him directly through his advocacy website. You can also follow him on Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn, or sign up for his daily newsletter. He is based in Tokyo.

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