I broke my cherry today. (NOTE: Today = three days ago.)
Not that cherry. My Virgin Airlines (VA) cherry.
I am, of course, the 376,921st hack to make that joke the lead for a story. But that’s not what’s important.
What’s important is that I’ve never had a flying experience quite like I had on VX 0466 from IAD to SFO.
It began mundanely enough. The 8 AM was delayed. Turns out the redeye from SFO to IAD from the night before got caught in some weather. This is a problem ‘cause it appears that there are only two planes to service that route. I’m guessing that because there are precisely two flights going in either direction per day.
The passengers for VX0466 sat waiting at Gate 30. For two hours. A cute 22-ish Thai girl broke the delay with occasional updates to say that the plane had arrived. That unspecified maintenance was being performed. That said maintenance was still being performed. That the maintenance was complete. That paperwork was en route to clear the plane. That said paperwork was taking longer to process than should be expected. That we were almost done waiting. That we could board. At last.
(TANGENT: I think I was the only passenger who found her running narrative to be entertaining. Every other face I saw in the terminal was either frozen in sleep or tattooed with the iconic travel grimace that has become the uniform of sojourning Americans everywhere.)
I presented my boarding pass—one slip of glossy paper sized like an index card—and stepped into the lights. A Forum Blue illuminated the ceiling. A friendly magenta hovered over each seat. Both filtered through a clear purple divider separating first class from the masses in steerage.
I sat down in my leather seat and immediately started playing.
My knees didn’t touch the seat in front of me. A small miracle for a thigh that runs 27” from arse to kneecap. My elbow did, however, get stuck in the slot carved out of the arm rest allowing the user to access the removable handheld control for the in-seat entertainment center. I never quite got comfortable with that second one. But I only paused for a moment to ponder that problem before I launched the interactive environment known simply as Red. (Word to Laran Lee. Happy birthday kiddo.)
There are two ways to use Red: the touch screen and the remote control. Since I’m battling carpal tunnel syndrome, I opted for the touch screen. Though I did notice that the cursor activity on screen doesn’t keep up with how fast you may hit the navigation buttons on the remote. Nor does the remote navigation work intuitively. It’s close. But the touch screen is much more effective. There’s no confusing the machine when you’re using your own finger.
The menus consist of single action verbs that reflect the level of engagement VA seems to be going for:
watch – Movies and TV
listen - Music
play - Games
talk – Chat feature
read – No idea
eat – Order food
shop – not sure ‘bout this one either
There was a kids play option for the can’t-drive-they-own-self set. As well as quicknav, info//help, media player and main menu buttons.
Talk, read and shop were disabled. Shame. Would have been cool to pull up the Washington Post or try to holla at the blonde 12 rows behind me. Ah well.
As I clicked through and figured everything out, I discovered a few things:
1) You can only use certain applications simultaneously (e.g. Can’t listen to music and play games at the same time, but can listen to music and scroll through other menus.)
2) The eat button stays conspicuously on screen while you’re watching TV.
3) Parental controls to allow grown folks to filter the rated content that will be made available to their little spongebobs. A polite note to be mindful of young eyes sitting next to you appears as part of the home page.
4) The interface contains elements of both the PC and the Mac experiences. Not sure hot that works, but that was my impression.
I also noticed that there was an outlet under my seat so I promptly plugged the G4 in and started building this gargantuan blog entry. [NOTE: There, apparently, are plans to install wireless internet. That was not available for the flight I took.]
Since I’m not a gamer, I didn’t spend much time learners-permitting the play section. I did, however, completely dissect both the watch and listen features. Before I did, though, I used the restroom. The lever to release the handsoap had a Method sign right above it. The only piece of non-VA branding I noticed on the plane.
On to the listen.
There are two options: music and radio.
Music acts as the jukebox. Most of the standard artists. Prince. The Dixie Chicks. Bob Dylan. Green Day. Earth, Wind & Fire. Nirvana. Mary J. Blige. Etc. Etc. Etc. Along with some eccentric choices. Mozart (+ a bunch of other iconic composers). Zappa, Tiesto, The School House Rock SDTK. Sun Ra. And Funkadelic. Well, Funkadelic is pretty standard on jukeboxes around the world, but I had to save the best for last.
In sum, the variety of genres and artists impressed me.
Except for the fact that not a single legitimate hip hop act placed anywhere in the catalogue. [NOTE: The Black Eyed Peas made the cut. But I did say legitimate.] There was no reggae either. Unless you count Sean Paul. [Robert Nesta Marley wherefore art thou?] And no world music of any sort—which is a strange disconnect from the options available in the radio stations. I’ll get to that in a second.
Rightfully pissed about the slight to the genre that made me, I built a playlist of some of my favorite artists who did make the cut. [No Rage either, homie. Can you believe it?] The playlist option works kinda like it does in your iPod. It’s clickable. Not quite as easy to edit, though. And completely at your discretion. I messed around and added some Funkadelic, James Brown, Led Zeppelin, Jimi Hendrix, Michael Jackson, Marvin Gaye, Radiohead, John Lee Hooker, Prince and Nine Inch Nails. I really hope it survives for the next passenger. They’d inherit the sweetest seat on the plane.
Quick thoughts on a couple of those:
15 total Zeppelin songs. The usuals from from I, II, III and IV. Plus some tracks from "Presence," "Houses of the Holy" and "Physical Graffiti." Other than just Kashmir and Song Remains the Same. Sadly, though, no "Hots on for Nowhere."
James Brown on the other hand included nearly full disc of samplings from the double disc "40th Anniversary Collection." No "Down and Out in New York City."
Oh...and the Marvin Gaye failed to include anything from "Here, My Dear." For. Utter. Unforgivable Shame.
The other listen option, radio, acted as the standard pseudo-radio station that is to be expected from an airline. 20 channels including local stuff--The Sound of Va and Sounds of San Francisco--along with a fairly exotic selection of stuff like Mandarin Pop, Cantonese Pop, Korean Pop, Japanese Pop, Latin Pop. [This theme pops up again later, BTW.]
The Street Channel—which alleged to play hip hop and R&B—actually did so. The first song I heard when I selected it was Common’s “The People.” I also heard some Gnarls Barkley, Mos Def, Ne-Yo, De La Soul, Digable Planets. Lupe Fiasco. And Mary J. Blige. I abandoned the station like it was crazy-ass Howard Dean screaming “YAAAARGH!” as soon as the opening chords of “Umbrella” oozed into my ears. Overall, that station made me feel a little bitter for there being no hip hop artists in the library. But only a little. [NOTE: The radio feature does not provide song titles or artist names. Not a good look.]
All of that cruising around made me hungry. So I flipped over to watch some TV and ordered something to eat.
Very limited food selections. Three meals and four snacks. A cheese plate ($7). A mufaletta + salad ($8). Which was pretty small, though it came with a honey/almond/nugat Tobblerone for desert. And a pastry + yogurt ($6). There were also healthy snacks from the Archer Farms line. A cereal bar ($1). A cookie ($2). A nutbar ($1). A fruit roll-up (1). And buffalo wing chips ($2).
VA doesn’t accept cash. But it does have two in-seat touchpoints for you to run your credit card. After you pick what you want, slide the plastic and press “Pay.” An attendant delivers your order within 5 minutes or so.
I munched on my mufaletta while watching "Boyz N the Hood" on TNT. The sandwich was decent. But I became increasingly less interested in it as a problem began to plague my Red.
A dialogue box popped up on my screen reading “Airplay Error/Fork failed (error 12: Cannot allocate memory).” I clicked okay. It disappeared. Then popped up 45 seconds later. This routine played out a half dozen times before I summoned an attendant. She appeared pretty quickly and volunteered to reset my seat. Five minutes later, everything was functioning as it should.
Back to the watch. This feature offered five choices: movies, music videos, tv, premium tv and multi-lingual tv. TV, first.
22 total channels including 4 espns, cartoon network, cnbc, IFC, CNN, E, Discovery, USA, BET, Current, and Disney, but no MTV. [NOTE: That struck me as curious, too.)
As for the Movie...25 movies available at $8 a pop. Also intriguing for its variety. Ocean’s 13, Shrek the Third, Spider-Man 3, And the third Pirates of the Carribean. But also: Waitress, Breach, Disturbia and The Lives of Others (won an oscar for best foreign language film last year). Along with some random Anime, and a couple of Chinese language films (one Mandarin and one in Cantonese), As well as a Spanish and Korean language film [NOTE: What? No Bollywood love?]
Plus something called CampusMovieFest.com—a collection of 20 shorts made by film students. I watched about half of them. A few stood out:
Tangent—knock off Twenty Bucks, but really skillfully done
55: A Meditation on the Speed Limit – ill project to measure effectiveness of speed limit
The Importance of Playing Yardball—kind of amatuerusih, but had a lot of haeart and was structurally sound
And then there was Cocaine: The Musical.
It was terrible and cheesy. The good kind. Where you can’t help but laugh. And sing along with choruses like this:
“Man, this coke is really good. Man, this coke is really good.”
There's not much you can follow that with. There is, of course, the cheesy "Man, this flight was really" good option. But, uh, I'm not gonna do that.
I'll just leave this post here. I will update it eventually. Probably with some pictures. For now, this mini-novella will have to do.