The benefits of starting from scratch

Today marks the second anniversary of the launch of Virgin America, an upstart carrier that has inspired many loyal followers. Virgin America is a clear example of the benefits of starting from scratch.

Virgin America cabinAmong Virgin’s features:

  • Brand new planes.
  • Cheerful gate staff and flight attendants.
  • AC power plugs at every seat.
  • In-flight WiFi on every seat on every flight.
  • Live TV.
  • The best in-flight entertainment system on a domestic carrier.
  • The best premium economy offering (Main Cabin Select) in the U.S.
  • The best domestic first class, with the exception of three-cabin transcontinental offerings like United’s p.s. It even rivals some U.S. carriers’ international business class offerings.
  • In-seat, on-screen food ordering.
  • Specialty food choices.
  • A simple frequent flier program with no redemption restrictions.

Virgin America is the airline I’d design if I were designing an airline from scratch. It solves the needs of today’s travelers.

The legacy airlines can’t come close to Virgin’s offering. Retrofitting aircraft is expensive and many carriers are facing liquidity crunches. Union rules make it next to impossible to fire rude and bitter flight attendants. Bureaucratic processes and lethargy prevent innovations like Virgin’s IFE system (see my post Could YouTube have come from a large company?) To the extent that Virgin America has a legacy, it’s the halo from Virgin’s fun, irreverent brand and Sir Richard Branson, chairman of Virgin Group. (see video below)

On most airlines I complain about things like surly flight attendants, seats held together with duct tape, dirty planes, long mechanical delays and shabby terminal facilities. On Virgin America the complaints are in a different (and whiny) league: the IFE system has some bugs in it, seat-to-seat chat needs status messages, in-flight WiFi can sometimes be slow. The only substantive complaint I’ve had so far is that the Web site is incredibly slow and painful to use.

I’m not the only one who has noticed: Virgin’s load factor has been steadily increasing, even as it has expanded capacity. Virgin’s flights often sell out before those on legacy carriers on the same routes.

Virgin came into the market at a really tough time for the industry, with record oil prices last year and the toughest economy in decades. Here’s hoping Virgin America makes it to its 20th birthday.

Vodpod videos no longer available.


About Rakesh Agrawal

Rakesh Agrawal is Senior Director of product at Amazon (Audible). Previously, he launched local and mobile products for Microsoft and AOL. He tweets at @rakeshlobster.
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4 Responses to The benefits of starting from scratch

  1. Adam says:

    If only Virgin (this version) flew internationally… and so affordably. I would ditch United Airlines once and for all.

  2. I wish Virgin had an elite program. If they offered free Main Cabin Select for elite members (similar to United’s Economy Plus for elites), I’d switch over a lot more of my travel.

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