I am not Fooled by You, Virgin America
I had heard the epiphany-grade reviews of Virgin America. I’d watched the eyes of otherwise rational friends widen to the size of cookie plates when they spoke with zen-like calm about their “flight experience.” About mood lighting. About in-flight entertainment. About stewardesses. To talk about Virgin America with a Virgin America frequent flyer can be like talking to a Terrence Malick fan or a Tea Partier. You’re either a member of the faithful, or you would be if only you read the right blogs. 1
It obviously works in Virgin America’s favor to have such rabid fans. 2 They want us to believe that everyone who flies Virgin America is good looking, affluent, and in general having a better time than anyone else at 35,000 feet. Like any other profit-maximizing firm looking to capture and hold onto the adoration of youngish consumers, Virgin positions itself as a sexy alternative to staid competitors who cater to professionals and nightmarishly large American families (the United’s, Delta’s, and American Airlines’s of the world). 3
They assert that they’ve reinvented the (their words) “flight experience.” I’m always skeptical of claims like this primarily because it seems virtually impossible that any one airline could untangle the mess of air travel as we currently know it. 4
Besides, plenty of companies have tried already, and failed.
For example, Virgin America flies out of the same terminal at O’Hare as JetBlue, an ex-darling of the aviation industry that similarly promised to rewrite the rules of air travel. Back in 1999, when JetBlue entered service, it seemed as if God himself had whispered into founder David Neeleman’s ear [see Note 2]. He told him to go forth and put leather seats and DirecTV on his planes, and everyone would ignore the harrowing traffic at either end of a red eye from Long Beach, CA to JFK. 5 This actually proved an effective strategy until a well-known snafu in 2007, when JetBlue stranded a hundred passengers on the tarmac at JFK.
For eleven hours. 6
The crew insisted that the plane couldn’t return to the terminal because its wheels had frozen to the ground. The result resembled something like Lord of the Flies meets Airplane—the stuff of subsequent Congressional hearings and television news magazinesspecials. If Twitter had been around, one can only conjecture at the levels of ill will hurled virtually in the direction of @JetBlue.
The airline has never really recovered.
In other words, it doesn’t matter how fancy the marketing; how deep and plush the leather seats; or how great the abundance of satellite television channels on offer. The basic fact remains: in their current manifestation, the rules of commercial air travel are designed to suck as much joy as possible from the activity of human flight. And anything that airlines do to mask this basic condition merely papers over problems eating at this core. When those problems break through, the results are often terrifying, exposing dark truths about human nature. I’m willing to wager the Pentagon studies these moments very closely.
1. This is just straight secularized dogma. In the absence of God, we get religious about brands. I don’t want to say too much about this except: Virgin America is the kind of airline that makes some folks talk in the hushed tones ordinarily reserved for places of worship. And so it makes sense, maybe, that Virgin started as an airline serving the godless coasts of this great country, steering well clear of and high over the several states in which hushed tones reserved for places of worship are still reserved for actual places of worship. (back to article)
2. So many of whom say things like “I’m a born again Virgin,” or “You’re still a Virgin virgin?” that it makes me wonder if any of these people have ever either been virgins or had sexual relations with a virgin—neither of which experience being exactly up to the hype. (back to article)
3. There is of course a long tradition of making airline travel seem sexier than it actually is. One need look no further than the incessant ads for ABC’s new show Pan Am for an example of how we sexualize commercial aviation—especially as it existed during the so-called golden age of air travel. Based on the evidence, Pan Am will apparently be comprised of this scene from Catch Me if You Can, over and over again. Note that the same Frank Sinatra tune plays in the background of both clips. Compare this to an actual 1958 advertisement for Pan Am’s new (and then-revolutionary) Boeing 707 jet service. (Even then, they emphasized lighting). It certainly seems like “the travail has been taken out of travel,” though it’s hard to determine why, exactly, the powder rooms need to be so big. I have a hunch we’ll find out if we tune into ABC on Sunday evenings this fall. (back to article)
4. Consider: we pay exorbitant fares, dictated by the sadistic whims of a steroidal fuel market, to travel five hours in seats designed for malnourished children, sitting next to obese real Americans eating overstuffed Chipotle burritos that they’ve brought on board to avoid having to pay for airline food. (NB: I always finish my Micky D’s before boarding). We arrive at the airport early, depart late for our destinations, miss our inevitable connections in Denver International Airport (always, always, always Denver), and then wait an hour in LAX or wherever to retrieve checked luggage that we eventually find out is located, impossibly, in Omaha—as though some compartment door fell open midflight, relieving the plane of our bag (and it’s always only our bag).
In the latest and well-publicized instance of nefarious airline practices, most now charge gut-twisting fees to check these bags in the first place. The net effect being that, if we don’t check bags, we end up competing with the same real America yahoos (who somehow—there really is no justice in the world—get priority boarding), for scant overhead compartment space. And, when there’s absolutely no room left because the bag-size restrictions that you assiduously adhere to are apparently just a very informal suggestion as far as everyone else is concerned, the flight attendant says with consoling face, “I’m sorry we’re going to have to gate check this for you.” Which of course is airline code for, “Now you’ll have to wait at the baggage claim for an hour, even though you packed extra carefully for your three week journey, convincing yourself that it’s okay to wear your underwear inside out.” The small consolation being that at least you didn’t pay to put your bag down there. (back to article)
5. Ask anyone who’s ever been on the 405 South from LA to Long Beach at around 7:00 PM PST or the inbound Van Wyck Expressway from JFK to Manhattan at around 7:00 AM EST if they would ever fly overnight from LGB to JFK. I think they’d be more likely to choose several kinds of invasive surgery before braving what amounts to a traffic nightmare of migraine-inducing proportions. (back to article)
6. This little incident was so bad that the FAA finally got moving on the so-called “Passengers Bill of Rights,” which coincidentally went into effect 24 hours after my flight to California. Perhaps needless to say, the episode wasn’t exactly a marketing coup for JetBlue. You don’t want to be known as the airline whose treatment of passengers was so awful that it amounted to something that the government deemed—not just illegal—but morally reprehensible after the fact. That is, in a country that puts a lot of stock in Bills of Rights, JetBlue has become the George III of the skies. (back to article)
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