Being Customer Centric: Virgin America Airlines Review

I got to fly this airline yesterday and thought it was worth writing about, since it’s such a new thing. Virgin America apparently runs just a few routes right now, and has only recently started flying within the U.S.

I flew from SFO to Dulles. As I read in others’ blogs, the plane that took me where I ended up actually came from Las Vegas, as opposed to a plane which just runs back and forth. I think that impacted the performance – 2 hours late to board, yikes. I think FlightStats tells a similar story about on time performance, so far.

That’s the bad news, getting it out of the way. The good news was a bunch of things that were obvious from the time of check in. At the gate, when a delay was announced, the staff member would give the information and then say, “My name is Jane. Feel free to come to me with any questions.” Later on in the evening, the pilot himself made an announcement at the counter and included the information that he was as eager to take off as we were, as soon as the plane we would be using arrived and was clean. That was a nice touch. And he also announced his name and that he would be available up front for questions.

The plane – pretty impressive. They seem to have thought through the space really well and I liked the mood lighting. Cabin staff was really helpful and with good energy. I have to admit I was a little tired so I did not fully rise to the occasion – this is what happens on a red-eye I guess. Later on in the night I had a bit of stomach discomfort because I came on board with an empty stomach, and the attendant really went out of her way to suggest things that would help. When the flight was over, she asked, “of all the things we tried, which one worked out the best for you?”

The customer centered part that I really appreciated was the pilot’s attentiveness to providing information. When the ride became bumpy, he came on the overhead immediately and explained what it was, what he was going to to about it (climb higher) and that it would level off, which it did. I am not a nervous flyer anymore (I used to be), but when I was more so, I always wanted someone to acknowledge that things were bumpy, that this was a normal thing, and not to worry. The pilot did this and it made a difference. As the patient with a concerning symptom wants to know how concerned to be about it, the passenger in a bumpy aircraft wants to know whether to be concerned about it. Nice job.


I'm an airline pilot and thought I'd share some insight about this commentary.

I'm glad this traveler had a good experience that was improved specifically by the pilot's good communication. Some of us are better at it and more proactive about it than others. I think it's almost always a good thing when the pilot communicates honestly and effectively with passengers, respecting their intelligence and desire to know what's going on.

I'd like to clarify something about your comment about the plane coming from another city (Las Vegas) first, as opposed to just going back and forth between the cities that you are traveling to and from.

There seemed to be some surprise veiled in that comment, as if the delay could only have been caused by supposed poor planning on the airline's part by scheduling the airplane to come from another city, other than the one you were flying to or from. Forgive me if I misread the feeling behind the comment.

Either way, it might be helpful for you to know that delays are most often caused by air traffic control limitations that are imposed on airlines in order for the air traffic control spacing requirements to be met in the airspace that the plane is departing from, flying through, or arriving in. This required spacing may be further impacted by weather in any of the aforementioned areas of airspace (including weather outside of the immediate area of the departure and destination airports, which is why airline employees just shake their heads when passengers protest that they are being lied to about weather being a cause for a delay when they have just talked to a spouse on their cell phone and have been told that there isn't any weather at their destination and they look out the window and don't see any at the airport they're departing from either).

Therefore, it is almost irrelevant where an airplane is coming from or going to before it gets to you because air traffic control delays can happen anywhere at anytime. Obviously, some areas experience them more often (Northeast: always heavily congested, San Francisco: fog, etc).

The other thing to think about is that in order for an airline to operate it's equipment and schedule it's crews efficiently and cost-effectively (in part, passing on that cost savings to the passenger), an incredibly complex system of scheduling and routing must be created, and it must be able to respond to the best of its ability to dynamic and unpredictable effects on it, such as weather, unexpected maintenance, etc. The upshot of this is that there are probably very few, if any airlines that actually schedule the same airplane to just keep flying back and forth between two cities over and over, although it might occur from time to time.

So, think about how complex the behind the scenes operation is in running an airline, how many factors are affecting the ability to remain on time, and consider that, although some employees do a better job than others of dealing with customers, most of them are doing absolutely the best job that is possible under the circumstances and that the vast majority of delays have little or nothing to do with a failure on any employees part or the company's part to plan or execute a plan properly.

Thanks, Rich!

I appreciate you taking the time to add information about how things really work. I am planning on flying this airline again in the next few weeks and I am looking forward to it.

Thanks to you both! I was just surfing the web looking for reviews on airlines that fly from IAD to SFO or OAK. I try and book non-stop because I am a very nervous flyer and like to minimize the take-off and landing parts of the flight. I was reading about the Airbus 320 that both JetBlue and Virgin America use which has had pretty bad performance reviews. I am willing to pay the extra for an airline that flies a higher-rated plane and has a higher rated maintenance record and forego the bedside manner of the staff. I'd be curious to hear Rich's (the pilot) take on this.

I can't comment on whether there are substantive differences between aircraft, my belief is that the safety record in airlines is great (especially compared to health care).

I can add that since the post above, I flew Virgin America again, and then a "regular" airline 2 days later. The contrast was pretty impressive. After being in a mood-lit cabin with ability to power my laptop, watch the latest music videos and otherwise relax (even in coach), going to a bright white flourescent-lit cabin with none of the amenities felt like going from the 21st century to 1950.

I hope that our local airlines will be spurred to innovate because of this experience.

Thanks to all of you. I'm planning to take the family from Dulles to SFO in June. I had an unnerving experience last April on a 320 flown by United from Chicago to Dulles. The rudder locked up 30 minutes outside of DCA and we were diverted to Dulles. I'd like to hear the pilot's reactions to the version that VA is flying. Or anyone else with some knowledge.

Ted Eytan, MD