How Virgin America Was Ahead Of Its Time

The Virgin brand has built its reputation on being fun, playful, and a pioneer of new ways of doing things. From the original record label to the futuristic Virgin Galactic, everything the Branson-led brand touches is always a little bit different. Virgin America was no different.

VX plane
Virgin American raised the bar for domestic flying in the US. Photo: Getty Images

In many ways, the airline was ahead of its time. Just like its UK counterpart, it was first with so many things, and its brief but disruptive foray into the US market has laid a path to paxex improvements that we should all be thanking it for today.

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Social focus

One of the first things Virgin America did when it was finally granted its operating license was to hire a social media team. By the time the first flight took off, it had three full-time social media managers who were interacting with and responding to customers 24/7, mainly on this hot new social channel called Twitter.

When you think about it, that was incredibly foresightful of Virgin’s management team. The first tweet had been sent in 2006 by founder Jack Dorsey, and by February 2007, only 5,000 tweets per day were being sent. Nevertheless, Virgin America saw the potential and hunkered down to run real-time customer service through the platform.

The airline’s social focus gave it greater interaction with passengers. Photo: Airbus

That was a great decision. By January 2009, 2.5 million tweets a day were being sent, and it was fast becoming the go-to platform for corporate communications. Today, 500 million tweets are sent every day, and just about every large company on the planet has a social media team to handle its activity.

So next time you tweet your airline, thank Virgin America that you get a reply.

First for WiFi

Virgin America was the first US airline to offer WiFi onboard on every flight. Operating through Gogo, the airline promised every flier access to the internet on every flight in the US.

In fact, not only was Virgin America the first to offer WiFi, it was the first to give passengers WiFi for free. From late 2009 until spring 2010, Google paid it a subsidy to allow passengers to access the internet at no cost. Sadly, it wasn’t able to continue that long term.

Virgin America
Along with WiFi came the addition of Netflix on the plane. Photo: Virgin America

Even today, the free WiFi model has been a hard nut to crack, with only JetBlue succeeding in providing workable WiFi at no cost to passengers. That hasn’t stopped other airlines from trying, though.

A break from the norm

Virgin America arrived at a time when aviation in the US was on a race to the bottom. Airlines were sacrificing passenger experience for efficiency, cutting services, legroom and amenities in a bid to bag the most passengers. For domestic travelers, it was a wholly unpleasant experience, to be endured rather than enjoyed.

Virgin America arrived and worked to change all that. Right from the start, it set out to kick things up a notch, with a focus on branding and passenger experience to set it apart from the competition.  It began on the ground, with a booking system that stripped back all the frills to allow flights to be booked in 90 seconds or less, and an app that automatically rolled into ‘day of travel’ mode to give instant access to the boarding pass throughout the journey.

Virgin Aircraft
Mood lighting and guaranteed seatback screens were seen first on Virgin’s fleet. Photo: Getty Images

That fuss-free, pleasant customer journey carried on into the cabin, where pink and purple mood lighting set the ambiance for a fun and laid back flight. Friendly cabin crew, a best in class first class product and seatback screens at every position were ideally offset with cocktails in the air and a willingness to iron out every little wrinkle in the journey.

Virgin’s customer-first attitude earned it a loyal following both in the air and on the ground. Before it wrapped up, the airline had garnered almost 790,000 Twitter followers, 27,000 YouTube subscribers and more than 3.3 million Google Plus followers. Its celebrity endorsements, viral marketing campaigns and iconic ads made it a firm favorite with fliers.

Sadly, it wasn’t enough to stop it vanishing after Alaska Airlines bought a majority of shares. Nevertheless, its brief and bold presence on the scene served to kick the industry into action and should be credited for the far nicer experience most fliers can enjoy today.

From better booking to intuitive apps, seatback screens to inflight WiFi, there’s a lot to thank Virgin America for today. Do you have a favorite Virgin America memory? Let us know about it in the comments.