The first time you step on board a Virgin America plane, you get the distinct impression you're walking into a giant flying iPod. There are no dowdy fabric curtains -- instead, there's glossy perspex dividers, tinted with purple and pink mood lighting. Tray tables and seat backs are gloss white. But it's the inflight internet that sold it for me.
Everyone knows that American domestic airlines are renowned for many things (destroying your luggage, going bankrupt midflight, etc) but service is not one of them. Virgin America is clearly making a very big effort to challenge that status quo with self-service checkin desks arranged on a big square of red carpet that make you feel more like you're at the Apple Store and less like you're in a queue at the airport.
When I flew with VA, it was only about a year old as an airline, and its staff were still genuinely helpful and enthusiastic.
When I flew with them, luggage was included as part of the price, but VA has moved closer to the policies of the other American domestic airlines now and is charging for bags. That being said, the fees are pretty reasonable -- especially if you need to take a lot of stuff with you. It's $25 per bag, with the first bag being able to weigh 32KG, and further bags weighing 23KG. Compared to the excess baggage fees charged by Australian airlines (e.g. $35 for 5KG on Qantas!) this is cheap.
Virgin America's checkin cut-off is 45 mins before the flight -- a little bit longer than Aussies are used to with 30 minute cut-off on Qantas and Virgin Blue flights. However, because security lines at US airports can be ridiculously long and slow-moving, Virgin recommends you get there 90 minutes early. Having missed a flight in New York earlier in the trip (because we assumed US domestic check-in times were similar to Australia) we left plenty of time for this flight.
The on-board experience of Virgin America is like no other airline I've flown on -- even Virgin Blue looks positively dowdy in comparison. As I said earlier, seat backs are in glossy iPod-style white plastic, mood lighting is violet and pink, and the seats are black leather in economy, or white leather in first class. This PR-provided pic gives a bit of an exaggerated idea of the colours inside the plane, but it's not wholly inaccurate.
There are no dowdy blue/grey curtains dividing sections of the plane; Virgin has gone for glossy transparent perspex instead.
It was really the inflight internet in all of Virgin America's planes that sold me on flying with them. I learned after booking that the other American carriers now offer it too -- but not on all their flights. It's done via the GoGo system, which is rather incredible -- a grid of ground base stations dotted right across the American continent provide internet to the plane, and then it's rebroadcast within the plane via WiFi. At the time it cost me $US12.95 for a single flight pass, which I thought was cheap, but I notice via the GoGo homepage you can now get a whole month's unlimited usage for $US19.95 -- at least, that's the promotional price until the end of October 2010.
The internet was not slow and was perfectly usable -- I noticed quite a few people on the plane had their laptops out using it, so there must be a reasonable speed connection between the plane and the ground.
All classes of the plane have power points in the seats -- though there's only two points between three seats. (However, if all three of you wanted to use your laptops side by side you'd probably have more problems with your elbows than with power supply.)
The inflight entertainment system is also something else -- you can order food through it (there's quite a decent menu too), watch a selection of actually good on-demand TV shows like True Blood, and -- wait for it, chat to other people on the plane in the inflight chat-room. I felt like I might have been in legally risky territory when I was chatting to a girl on the plane and she revealed to me that she was nine years' old. Fortunately her dad was with her chatting too.
Oh, and the inflight map is Google Maps, and you can play classic games like Doom on your seat-back -- when did chairs get this much computing power?! If Google founders Larry and Sergei Brin didn't have their own private party-equipped 747, this would be the airline they fly.
The flight attendants were young and friendly, and put up with working in incredibly cramped confines -- there's no galley or meal carts on these planes, just some cupboards and a tiny bench at the front of the plane where the flight attendants retrieve food from. Frankly, from a passenger's perspective, it's pleasant -- there are no trolleys getting in the way all the time, and the food is delivered to your seat soon after you order it, rather than having to wait while 300 people get asked if they want chicken or fish.
Cabin storage bins/pockets, cabin noise and flight punctuality were all unremarkable -- much like any other domestic airline.