Is Virgin America too geeky for passengers and flight attendants?

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Is Virgin America too geeky for passengers and flight attendants?

Opinion – Well, it didn’t take long for the fairy tale honeymoon debut of Virgin America to wear off.  While the airline provided excellent service on my initial flight from Los Angeles to San Francisco, the return flight was horrible in every sense of the word.  Despite getting to the airport early, the flight was delayed for more than an hour and on top of that we waited on the tarmac for more than thirty minutes while the pilot did “extra paperwork”.  But the real surprising thing was the utter confusion surrounding Virgin’s drink ordering system – a system that befuddled both passengers and flight attendants.

Virgin America: Drinks, power plugs and interior …

You may want to read our experience flying Virgin America from LAX to SFO here because it will provide some context for this article.  I had booked the return portion of the trip for the same day Friday with a departure time of 4:15 PM.  I arrived at the airport at around 3:30 PM, which – in this case – proved to be much too early.

The flight was delayed because the plane had not yet arrived.  It wasn’t until 4:00 PM that the ground staff announced the delay.  At 5:10 PM, almost an hour after the scheduled departure time, the plane arrived and we began boarding.

But the delays didn’t stop there because we sat for an extra 20 minutes after the doors closed.  The delay was caused by “extra paperwork”, according to the plane’s captain as he talked on the loudspeaker.  We then spent another 15 minutes taxiing towards the runway.

These delays are infuriating (especially for people trying to get home and have dinner with family), but I don’t place all the blame on Virgin America.  Friday afternoon is probably one of the worst times to fly out of any major airport, especially a commuter hub like San Francisco.   Every morning tens of thousands of people fly into the city for meetings and work and those same people are flying out in the afternoon.  I imagine that this rush is probably magnified on Friday as people try to make it home for the weekend.

Ok, enough about the delays, the technology is the main reason for this article.  I managed to find the power, USB and Ethernet ports in the economy seats after several minutes of frustration.  The flight attendants I asked either didn’t know where the plugs were or they mistakenly thought the plugs weren’t installed yet.  How’s that for rushed training?

The seat back pocket has a handy chart that shows where the plugs are and I’ve got to say that they are in one hell of an awkward spot.  They are placed under your seat and you’ve got to navigate your plugs completely by feel to plug your cables in.  Good luck in trying to see the plugs during flight because there just isn’t enough space and your neighbor will wonder what you may be doing under your seat.  But after plugging in my laptop, I was getting the wonderful charging indication inside Windows Vista.  In fact, I typed most of this article while juicing up the notebook.

On this flight, the crew managed to get the drink ordering system running… sorta.  The system was either turned off or not functioning for the morning flight – I’m leaning towards turned off because the morning beverage service consists of just water, coffee or orange juice.  On the return flight, we could order Cokes, bottled water and other simple beverages for free by tapping on the “Eats” menu on the Red entertainment system screen.  Alcohol beverages like beer and Vodka could also be bought for between $6 and $8.

The ordering system is a great concept, but almost all of the passengers (me included) forgot to confirm the order by tapping a few extra buttons.  We all thought that merely tapping the Coke icon would get us a Coke, but like web-based shopping carts you also have to click checkout and confirm.

The flight attendants brought out the drink cart which had a big LCD screen on top and this is where the real fun begins.  The passengers are expecting their drinks without a fuss because they think they’ve ordered it successfully, but the flight attendants had just a few orders showing on their LCD screen. Long story short, the flight attendants scrapped the system and resorted to walking up and down the aisles asking people what they want.

So in addition to safety demonstration that you see at the start of every flight – you know the one where the flight attendants blow into the life jacket and show where the exit doors are located – maybe there should be a “How to Order Drinks” demonstration.

Or, we all aren’t quite ready yet for a high-tech airline.