Redefining the flying experience

20 Jan 2010|Lee Shupp

Virgin America has succeeded in redefining the flying experience for me. This is no mean feat, as airlines have to work within many constraints like FAA regulations, safety considerations, and limited space. But constraints can actually spark creativity, and Virgin has managed to be creative in just the right ways for me. Why am I such a fan of Virgin America?

I’ll be honest: I’m not a big fan of flying. I’m a frequent flyer who does lots of business travel, so flying for me is a lot like taking the bus to work. No thrill there, just another day in the office. Most airlines treat the flying experience as being on a bus, only with more rules.

Think about the typical flying experience: you walk onto a plane into bright white lighting that makes everyone, even the celebs, look like old vampires. You are lectured by announcements admonishing you to hurry up, find your seat, and store your bags, because you are making everyone late. Generic music plays, punctuated by blaring announcements repeating the admonishments that you’ve already heard. Passengers are tense, and are competing to be the first to fill the limited overhead bin space. The staff is complaining about the latest layoff or company politics, and seems intent on doing the minimum possible to keep their jobs.

I know the airlines have had a tough time, but Virgin has been very smart about recognizing opportunities to do lots of little things right. Little things that matter. Here is how Virgin has upped the ante on a good flying experience, and effectively differentiated the airline from the rest of the pack.

Lighting. When you walk onto a Virgin America plane, the lighting is a subdued purple, which is calming and relaxing. It reminds me of the black lights hip teenagers had in their bedrooms back in the day. It transforms the visual experience from bright white bus to hip relaxed chill lounge.

Music. Hip techno music with slow, loping grooves is playing. I’m not a huge fan of techno, but the music is chosen to provide a nice, steady groove that downshifts you from the harries and hassles of going through security to the relative refuge of your seat.

Entertainment. Each seat has it’s own screen, which allows each person to customize their own entertainment, with movies, music, games, IM and other diversions. No more bad generic movies that you can barely see. You can entertain yourself in myriad ways, changing modes whenever you want.

Internet. I’m still shocked that the Internet is not easily accessible on every airline. Especially the airlines that cater to the business traveler, their most profitable customers. To me, the Internet is essential, right behind breathing, and I want it wherever I go.

Announcements. The announcements treat me like I’m an adult, and acknowledge that I’ve heard all this before while being just entertaining enough to get me to actually listen. The tone is friendly and intimate, like the person in the seat next to you is giving you the lowdown, rather than the Voice of Authority giving Important Safety Instructions.

Staff. The staff is young, hip and friendly, greeting you warmly. They are more focused on customers than on work politics. They seem genuinely happy to see me.

What are the lessons learned from Virgin?

Focus on creating a great customer experience, and make sure that all of the little things help to create and reinforce that desired experience.

Add your own unique and original touch to creating the experience. Do things differently from your competitors.

Have empathy with your customers, understand the experience that they are going through, and think about how they are experiencing what you create.

Get the little things right, and know that they add up to a bigger experience.

The things that Virgin has done are all small things by themselves, but they add up to a much better flying experience. Little things combine, reinforcing each other to provide a great holistic experience. I’ll be flying Virgin whenever I can.

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