Virgin America: A new airline with a great product and a few bugs

If you plan to fly Virgin America read this first.

It's not often I get to fly a new airline – and not just a new airline for me but one that is new to the world. My first trip on Virgin America was an unforgettable combination of disappointment and delight.

With a new airline, there are so many unknowns that business travelers are usually well-versed in: upgrade policies, purchase restrictions, baggage rules, aircraft layout, even the locations of the airport ticket counters. As I learned from this experience, when flying a new airline it pays to check the fine print before you go.

When an airline sells tickets for $39, travelers may tend to lower their expectations. But Virgin America shuns the discount label and touts its high-tech amenities and a unique, premium flying experience. With the hype about mood lighting in the cabin, thousands of musical selections in flight, electrical, USB, and Ethernet hookups at every seat, chat rooms in the sky, and a cashless system for ordering meals and drinks from your seatback video screen with the swipe of a card, my own expectations were already considerably higher than the average domestic airline.

Due to U.S. government regulations the parent Virgin company is only a minority investor in Virgin America. But Virgin Atlantic is known for in-flight massages, limousine ground transfers, and outlandish airport lounges with golf driving ranges and skiing machines. And with chief executive Richard Branson appearing prominently in the product launch the last thing I expected on Virgin America was a slew of surcharges padding the cost of my ultra-cheap ticket.

My $39 one way ticket soon became $64.40 with taxes and fees and an "upgrade" to the exit row. A pre-departure itinerary change added another $40 (although the airline never issued an updated receipt). Checking a second bag added another $10 surcharge, bringing the total cost of my one way flight from San Francisco to Los Angeles $110.40.

Virgin America ticket counters look like a five star hotel concierge desk, with a vase of fresh red roses on each desk and sleek new flat screen monitors for both self service and agent assisted check-in. But while paying the $10 surcharge for my extra bag I was informed that the agent could not print a receipt for my bag or my ticket because there are no printers at the ticket counters.

I was instructed to ask for my receipts at the gate where the agents struggled to operate the printer. At long last my receipts were printed on plain white paper with no company letterhead, but they still couldn't print a receipt displaying the new price of my ticket after the changes.

I wondered if I was the first Virgin America passenger to ask for a receipt and puzzled how anyone could submit receipts for reimbursement on plain white paper with no company letterhead. But I guess these are just some of the hiccups encountered with a brand new airline.

In-flight brought some pleasant surprises and also a few more kinks. Stepping into an aircraft with stark black and white seats and cool blue light emanating from the ceiling and soft pink lighting along the windows made me feel like I had just stepped back in time to a black-lit room in the psychedelic 1960s.

There was no in-flight magazine and soft drinks were served with no nuts or pretzels, but on the plus side the airline provided a self serve basket of water bottles in the aft galley. And when my seatmate swiped his credit card through the slot in his monitor a beer and bag of chips magically appeared on his tray table in less than a minute.

On Virgin America I no longer need to scour the boarding area for an electrical outlet to recharge my cellphone, iPod, and laptop battery. All seats provide110 volt power outlets, a USB port, and Ethernet jack which will eventually allow passengers to plug in to the Internet, but this was still under construction. A retractable handset included controls for games and a full alpha-numeric keyboard, but the interactive chat room messaging and in-flight shopping were still under construction.

It took most of my intra-California flight time to learn the basics of operating the in-flight entertainment system. Building a customized playlist from the 45 screens of musical selections was easy, but I couldn't figure out how to save my selections for my next flight. It was also great to have the capability to pause or re-play my music selections when interrupted.

Passengers also have access to numerous satellite television and pay-per-view movies in their seatback, and I particularly enjoyed the interactive route map with zoom capabilities. Parents may limit the choices children have in programming, plus a message warned all passengers to "shield your screen" to prevent children from accessing unsuitable content in-flight. What else would you expect from a brand with a bit of a risquéé reputation and a "Victoria's Secret Supermodel PJ Party" flight advertised on their website.

Despite some unanticipated surcharges and a few bugs accompanying its product launch, Virgin America has the potential to set a new standard for all other domestic airlines once all advertised amenities are operational. And I will look forward to mastering the entertainment system on my next Virgin America flight.

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Send David your feedback: David Grossman is a veteran business traveler and former airline industry executive. He writes a column every other week on topics of interest and concern to business travelers. E-mail him at