Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Flying the Friendly Skies: Virgin America



Rounded window edges prevent metal fatigue on an airplane's fuselage at high altitude.
I love airplanes. I am not super fond of airlines, airport security, body scanners, metal detecting wands, long lines, waiting at terminals, bad airport food, bad airline food, uncomfortable airplane seats and surly or bored customer service, cranky travelers and screaming colicky infants.

Air travel, once a noble, civilized mode of transportation has degraded into a circus consisting of part police state and part Muni-in-the-sky (MUNI service being so infamous that it has it's own blog: Muni Diaries). The security line is an absurd Kabuki that calls to mind Terry Gillian's epic film Brazil, where in my mind I'm the Robert DeNiro character but in deed I'm the hapless protagonist being shoved and pulled around in harsh florescent lighting while meaningless announcements drone away on tinny speakers.

Sadly, my discontentment against the plight of the air traveler has all but replaced my nagging fear of flying that plagued a younger me. After a certain sunny Tuesday morning in September, I set about to learn everything one could possibly know about air safety, commercial airline disasters, the secret language of air traffic controllers and pilots, hydraulics, VFR, Pitot tubes and center-wing tanks.

Occasionally I'd be caught reading up on air disasters while in flight by a flight attendant who would send me a sidelong glance. One attendant complimented me on reading "Survivor" by Chuck Palahnuik, where a major plot device pivots on the hijack and destruction of a Boeing 747.

The Boeing 747, by the way, is my favorite airframe by far: it is graceful for its size, with that peculiar hump aft of the cockpit, swept wings and four power-plants, it's striking rear-stabilizer. However, it is a central character in many of the world's most tragic, horrific air disasters. Strapped into its cabin, I can't help but commune with the ghosts of all those who perished aboard one.

The sky is a sea and I imagine ghost ships shuttling blissfully unaware travelers from ghost port to ghost port. It comforts me, this version of reality unseen behind clouds, where valves don't fail or sensors don't freeze up or angry men with box cutters realize that, hey, maybe we can all get along after all.

My day began in San Francisco, cool air stirred ripples over the San Francisco Bay, blue and green and probably full of ghosts like the sky. Light broke through scattered clouds, planes rotating off runways 28 Right and 28 Left drifted through shafts of silver sunlight. Soon enough I was strapped into my seat rotating off over the bay. Six hours and some change later I gazed across a rooftop in Lower Manhattan at glistening, bright white lights affixed to the new One World Trade Center building.

--


A UAL B74 still sporting her pre-merger livery at SFO.
Continental Airlines, now part of United Airlines, boasted the youngest fleet in the industry. That may have had some truth to it prior to the merger, but now Continental's 100+ Boeing 737-800 airframes join United's aging fleet that includes at least half a dozen 30-year or older Boeing 747s, dozens of 737s bought in the 1980s and 1990s and on, and at least a dozen other wide-bodies older than 15: 777s, 767s and the long-in-the-tooth 757s.

Both airlines "codeshare" with dozens of partners flying Continental or United liveries. These planes are not actually directly operated by United but are part of "Star Alliance", in which smaller regional airlines use a larger airliner's livery and in-flight call signs. The pilots, staff and planes are employed by or owned by regional carriers. Typical airframes for this class of service (puddle jumpers) are Bombardier Turbo-fan and Embraer Jet. Questions have been raised about the safety of their airlines in light of efforts to cut costs of maintenance and cut corners on staffing.

Virgin America, on the other hand, has a brand new fleet of Airbus 319 and 320 airframes. This is remarkable because, as a "budget" carrier, 100% of their planes are brand new - no older than 5 or 6 years.

Compare this with carriers like Southwest or Jet Blue, who lease older airframes as a cost-cutting measure. Southwest flies exclusively Boeing 737 jets, many of them upgraded or retrofitted with the winglets standard with the 737-800 model. Southwest Airline's average airframe age is 11 years, meaning that the newer jets offset the airframes that are 20 or more years in service.

I am not pointing this out to scare anyone: a 40 year old or older airframe, well maintained, is statistically about as safe as their newer counterparts.

A long, tragic history of "blood priority" has mitigated many of the deadliest design flaws: at least to the point where practicality meets actuarial inevitability.

Consider the windows you look out when you are on a plane:

Gone are the sharp edges of the original Comet window, shown to be a decisive factor in the break-up of several jets; rounded edges replaced those flawed windows, reducing the stress as the jet climbs to higher and higher altitudes.

Inert gas is pumped into any tank where the air conditioning system can cause kerosene vapor the heat in a center wing tank, as it did one horrible summer evening over Long Island Sound sending 230 human beings to their death[1]

Even modern jets fail:

Iced-over Pitot tubes can be blamed for leaving hapless pilots flying blind through a storm, unaware of their impending impact with the ocean below. Design failures in the control systems for the tail assembly of jets using lighter carbon-fiber stabilizers have doomed at least one airframe.

Sometimes a combination of bad engineering and inept maintenance has brought down modern airliners:

An improperly disconnected jet engine on an DC-10-10 lead to its separation from the airframe during rotation, but the badly designed hydraulic system doomed this airframe when the control surfaces of the adjacent wing were rendered unusable.

A relatively new LearJet was famously felled after the cabin lost pressure, asphyxiating the flight deck and everyone on board. The plane continued to fly on autopilot for hours before crashing more than 1000 miles off course, tailed by three sets of intercepting military jets.

Still despite these gruesome tragedies, and in the face of vague, faceless terrorist threats, air travel is still safer by a significant margin than any other form of travel we use today.

In fact, the risk of flying is almost statistically nil compared to getting in your car to get groceries or, worse, getting on a motorcycle (which my mother glibly calls "donor-mobiles").

But we as a people, meaning most Americans, prefer to hold things under their own control no matter how inadequate or incompetent.

Despite being forced to watch the educational equivalent of a snuff film (and I am not exaggerating) in high school for Driver's Ed, I held on to the notion that somehow I must be a better driver than most. I drove stupidly and recklessly for many years.

When I fly, I put my trust in those people in the cockpit, the air traffic controllers and so on. While I am far more safe in their hands as a matter of pure statistical fact, I have to intellectualize that fact every time I race down a runway at speeds exceeding 200MPH, and at a cruising altitude of many miles above the ground.

Pardon the pun, but this is the exact "leap of faith" that each of us takes when we are strapped into an uncomfortably small seat aboard a pressurize metal tube blasting through the air at speeds most of us would rather not comprehend.

Adding insult to injury, there's the food they get away with serving on-board.

--


Queens, train to JFK.
Usually the worst thing that will happen to you when flying is the service on board.

Well, that and being a larger than average person in those airplane seats.

Or having some kid behind you who has discovered the joys of kicking.

And... well, many other humiliations and offenses.

Virgin America is a different sort of airline. I'm told the entire franchise is different. Customer satisfaction data seems to support that assertion. Instead of making every effort to cut costs, Virgin America features seemingly exorbitant creature comforts (comparatively at least, in an age of flying much more Draconian carriers). Virgin America is betting that this will pay dividends in customer loyalty and I for one will fly the carrier whenever I can. Well played, Sir Branson!

Boarding the plane is like getting let into a hip night-club: soft, purple lighting and mid-tempo techno greets you. The flight attendants greet you as well, as seem genuinely excited to be working for the airline.

Gone are the stuffy pilot outfits, the pilots are dressed in casual Friday black slacks and black button down short-sleeves. No silly hats. No militaristic chevrons.

The attendants are helpful. One flight attendant held a passenger's infant as she arranged herself and all of her baby stuff. The attendant, a young woman who I guessed probably doesn't have children of her own cooed and bounced the baby, calming the child.

Once seated, you are face to face with Virgin America's in-flight service and entertainment console, RED.

RED is a Linux-based touch-screen service kiosk that allows you to watch free Dish Network TV in-flight, monitor the flight status, order food and drinks, order on-demand movies and even chat with your fellow passengers (the chat system is IRC-based).

Each screen hides a USB port if you need to charge your iPod, iPad or other, uh, non-Apple device.

Each row has at least one NEMA-15 (US three-prong) power plug (although they do not always work).

In addition to the touch-screen, each seat comes equipped with a controller - a keyboard on one side and a game controller on the other. Bored kids be gone!

Food and drinks are free for passengers in Virgin America's "business" class, "Main Cabin Select" or in First Class.

Great care is taken by people who have some taste in selecting the food and drink choices available on-board.

--


Star Alliance B74 taxiing at SFO.
So let's talk about the food onboard Virgin America.

Here's what's currently available on all flights, as a sample:
  • Hearty Meal
    This anytime combination includes Old Wisconsin beef salami, Late July Organic Crackers, Oakfield Farms cheddar cheese, Snyder’s mini pretzels, Welch’s fruit snacks, and Thin Addictives Cranberry Almond cookies.
  • Protein Meal
    This protein-packed meal combines Bumble Bee lemon pepper tuna, multi-seed crackers, Wild Garden sundried tomato hummus, Partners crackers, Emerald's natural almonds and yummy fruit snacks.
  • Jet Set Kid Pack
    This fun kids’ snack box comes with Giddy Dip’ems Snacks, Ritz Peanut Butter Crackers, Pepperidge Farm Whole Grain Goldfish, 18 Rabbits Bunny Bar, Dolphin Earbuds, and a slide puzzle to pass the time.
Sounds ... not bad? But does the food live up to the prose? My vote is yes, yes it does.

My meal on that particular flight was a turkey sandwich, on whole wheat, with mayo, cranberry sauce and stuffing. It was filling and it was 10 times better than the disappointing salad I ate at Cat Cora's (and much cheaper, I might add).

Drinks were cheaper too: for $14 I could order two airplane bottles of vodka with my choice of mixer (I chose soda water and cranberry).

I added that to my tab - having rang in my credit card once, I could order multiple items throughout the course of the flight.

Caveat emptor - the flight attendants by law can only bring you three of those liquor filled bottles at a time. However, if you are nice to them, they will bring the next three out an arbitrary number of minutes later.

Flight attendants do not collect tips. They should, given the level of service they provide.

--


Treasury Secretary Lew signs my bills.
The holidays are hard. Harder for some. I'm lucky to have family, as much as they may get under my skin from time to time. Holiday travel is hard... people are under stress, going to, coming from situations they don't necessarily relish.

I got to JFK after Thanksgiving, after two long weeks. The train ride from Manhattan was long, and spent thinking. The flight was delayed, no fault of the airline, due to bad weather in San Francisco.

I stalled. I ate bad airport food. I spent $100 in drinks. Eventually I found a seat at the terminal and took a nap.

On the plane (VX29), delayed 2 hours, we took off in parallel with our sister flight (VX27), now 4 and a half hours delayed.

"Are you going to race each other back to SFO?" I asked. 

"No," answered the captain.

The flight attendants allowed families to sit together. A few open rows in the back were given to customers who needed more space.

I spent half of my time napping, half watching in-flight TV.

Finally we made our turn over the Bay. The Dumbarton Bridge was in sight. The guide lights extend out onto the water from the runway, I turned my phone back on.

I slept in my own bed for the first time in two weeks, thanks to thousands of people's efforts, the FAA, the airline industry (maligned as it is), and blood priority.