As I write this, I’m about two hours away from San Francisco en route to San Diego for PRSA09. I’m on Virgin America’s Flight 67, which is my first time traveling with the airline.

I’m sold… mostly.

I’ve heard quite a bit about the Virgin experience (mostly on Twitter), but you really have to fly it to get it. The minute you step on the plane, you enter this nightclub-like ambience … or if not a nightclub, then at least you get the feeling you’re stepping into the “cool kids'” zone. Their lighting is pinkish-neon and it stays that way throughout the flight. So there’s quite a bit of the “ooh” factor there.

Seats are very comfortable, particularly the neck rests built into the seats, because you can angle them up to about 40°, so you’ll pretty much be able to find a position that’s comfortable for you. Their approach to the standard safety video is very cool (slightly irreverent cartoons), and I actually watched the whole thing. Granted, it’s my first time.

I love the way you can order your entertainment & food/beverages directly from the touch screen. Very convenient. And they give you a gazillion different things to do, from watch movies, to listen to music/videos, to chat from your seat with other passengers, play games (there’s a dandy little handset thing you use to navigate through the entertainment menu, complete with keyboard), or chat from your seat with other passengers, either directly or via an in-flight chat room.

Different colored headsets (at $2, I’m pretty sure they’re cheaper than on many other airlines, and they’re cute). Clearly it caters to an audience that needs to be entertained all the time, but heck, seems to work.

Clearly the in-flight wi-fi. It’s VERY cool.

But what I’m most impressed with is how refreshingly different the in-flight attendants are. They’re smart, funny, polite (which is not at all common these days), considerate and really seem to enjoy what they’re doing. There’s a little girl (20 mo.) sitting in one of the seats across from me. She’s been screaming up a storm intermittently (I was able to distract her with the laptop for a bit, but not long enough, apparently).

One of the attendants came by and, with the child’s mother’s permission, scooped her up in her arms and walked her up and down a bit. Later, when the eighth (or was it ninth? I can’t remember) screaming fit commenced, she gently tapped me on the shoulder and asked if I wanted headphones.

Yup. You can pick your jaws up from off the ground now. (By the way, Bianca, the little girl, is now sleeping quietly on the floor in front of her seat, I’m keeping an eye on her while mom goes to the loo.)

What’s not that great?

I was under the impression that the wi-fi was free, so it was a little off-putting to find out it’s not. On the other hand, it’s the first time I’ve had wi-fi access 35,000+ miles feet (sorry, I got up very early today) up in the sky, so I’m just going to shut up about it. (But I think I’ll get to try it free when I head back to DC on November 10th, thanks to their Google promotion.)

I’m sitting in the main cabin (read cheap seats) and as I walked by first-class (or business class, whichever it is) it didn’t strike me as particularly ooh la la. Your standard business class on a continental trip. So if I were you, I’d save up (or build your points) and try it on one of Virgin’s transatlantic or international flights. That’s where I think the really cool stuff is.

I’m also not particularly impressed with the airline’s Twitter representative(s), since I’ve tried a couple of times to engage with them and have received either no, or a very late, response. Are they as non-responsive in other social networks and outposts? No clue. But they’re far behind folks like Comcast’s Frank Eliason or Express’ CMO, in my opinion.

But I was impressed with their phone support yesterday. As an aside, the guy I spoke to told me after flying Virgin, I wouldn’t want to fly any other airline ever again, and that’s pretty much how I feel right now… mostly.

Why “mostly”?

I say “mostly” because while I love all the “cool stuff” that Virgin’s bringing us, I’m not a brand loyalist so much as a price-watcher. The main reason I’m flying Virgin for this excursion was a promotion they were offering, which made their price comparable to or better than Southwest (another airline I’ve been pleasantly surprised by recently) or United (I have the most points and comparatively least-painful experience on United). Yes, it gives me a kick to be tweeting and Skyping from mid-air, but not that much of a kick that I would follow them blindly if another decent airline were offering a great deal.

Good Customer Experience is the Best PR

I’ve written before about how important customer service is to the perception of a brand or organization. Good customer service can be the best PR. As far as that goes, I give Virgin a 9 out of 10. And all other things being equal (which pretty much means price for me), that is what will bring me back to Virgin; if my customer experience is way better with them than any other airline, you bet they’ll get my business again.

So far, it has been.

What have your virgin experiences (on Virgin, or any other airlines) been like? How important is the in-flight experience to your flight purchasing decisions? What do you think about the link between customer service and PR? Do let me know by leaving a comment below.

Photo: Marc_Smith

Shonali Burke
Founder and publisher of Waxing UnLyrical, Shonali Burke helps smart businesses make bank by taking their communications from corporate codswallop to community cool™. She is also the founder of The Social PR Virtuoso®, which provides online, on-demand training that helps you unleash your inner Social PR superhero. Shonali is mad about ABBA, bacon, cooking, dogs, and Elvis, though not necessarily in that order. Wouldn't you like to be in her kitchen?
Shonali Burke