08 Apr 2016

Virgin America's 'BLAH Airlines' Branded Content Premiers at Vail Film Festival

"This is the worst complaints have been for 15 years, as a rate,” Dean Headley, a researcher at Wichita State University's business school, said to CNN earlier this week in regards to the 26th annual national Airline Quality Rating report he co-authored. For those of us that travel on a regular basis, we don’t need a report to tell us what we already know first hand: for the most part and most often, flying sucks.

The one airline that came through with flying colors, and for the forth year in a row, was Virgin America. Also this week, the airline took a new and welcomed approach to marketing the benefit of flying Virgin in the form of branded content that took liberty with poking fun at all the crap we have to deal with when flying.

This week Virgin’s five-hour 45-minute film (yes, over five hours…I’ll get to that), “BLAH AIRLINES FLIGHT 101” will be screened at the 13th Annual Vail Film Festival, which takes place April 7th through the 10th in Vail, Colorado, and was in line with the current online promotions of new flight service from San Francisco to Denver.

The film starts off from the perspective of the traveler and all the experiences from which there is no escape; a crying child kicking the seat in the row in front, a clueless flight attended announcing the flight from Newark is going to “The City that never sleeps, San Francisco,” and another announcement of lost luggage ("Who on the plane has a black, rectangular suitcase?"), all before they’ve even left the tarmac. When the plane finally does take off, the captain chimes in with witty banter, like informing the passengers that on the flight they’ll see, “Sky…weather.” Hilarious.

Getting back to the particular length of a film, Virgin asks a very valid question in their release, “If you wouldn't sit through the entire film, why would you pay money to experience it in real-life on a flight?" No kidding. And when watching the film at home or even in the theatre during the film festival, I would venture to guess you’ve got way more leg room than on most economy and main cabin flights.  Plus, those filmgoers that sit through the entire screening at the Vail Film Festival will earn 5,000 Elevate points, or the equivalent of a reward flight, "So they can avoid flying "blah" on their next trip."

When Richard Branson started Virgin Atlantic in 1984, he did so because he’d also been in the airplane torture chamber and wanted to offer a better flying experience. “As a young record executive, I travelled the world flying by other airlines, but found the experience dreadful,” he stated in a recent blog post. This led to entering the US market with Virgin America in 2007, a time when most airlines were cutting costs and focused solely on the bottom line while nickel-and-diming customers.

The reason why Virgin is rated first by customers year after year could be the offering of power outlets at every seat, which is a HUGE benefit for long and overseas flights (here that Iceland Air, United, Delta?), free and FAST Wi-Fi via ViaSat that enables streaming of online entertainment content like Netflix (here that Frontier, Southwest?), a typical no-no on other flights. Virgin’s Red® entertainment is featured for each traveler on the seatback touch-screen, with new film releases, a 3,000 song library, live television, video games, and an on-demand food and drink ordering system.

When Branson shared the history of each of the Virgin Airlines entities in that blog post, he also announced that Virgin is going the way of the merger and consolidation trend "...that sadly cannot be stopped. Likely feeling the same competitive pressures as Virgin America, Alaska Airlines approached Virgin America with a proposal to merge. The board of Virgin America has accepted an offer from Alaska, and if the merger is approved by Virgin America shareholders and regulatory authorities, the two airlines will become one."

Uh, boy. For the record, on that Airline Quality Rating report, Alaska Airlines didn’t fare so well, with an increased rate of customer complaints and mishandling of bags, ironically what Virgin poked fun at in their film. What also sucks is that Branson, because he’s not American and therefore his shares in Virgin America are non-voting shares, “...there was sadly nothing I could do to stop it.”

When mergers like this happen, especially with companies that have loyal customers holding them in high regard, stockholders may be happy, but the people keeping them in business…not so much. One can only hope that Virgin’s approach to enhanced flying experiences and customer service influences Alaska and not the other way around.

Having experience with 50% travel during my time in sales and all the business trips since them, I’ve flown every domestic airline there is, and they’re all pretty BLAH. Virgin America is the only one I haven’t flown as of yet. But now, it’s on my list of travel goals along side visiting Cuba before blah American culture invades and takes away from the original charm.

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