United’s new bedding collection, made in collaboration with Saks Fifth Avenue.
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Offering craft beers and snazzy outfits still might not be enough to overcome Virgin America’s biggest problem: It’s an airline. The cost of fuel has more than doubled since Virgin was founded in 2004, and the company has not had a profitable year in the five years since planes officially took off. In 2011 it made 11 percent more per seat flown a mile, an industry benchmark, but suffered an operating loss of $27 million. That’s a 2.6 percent loss at a time when other major carriers are averaging an operational profit of around 5 percent annually. “Obviously they are targeting customers who might be willing to pay a little bit more for the experience,” says Seth Kaplan, a managing partner at the trade publication Airline Weekly. “People might like it, but they are not paying enough more for it. That’s why [Virgin is] losing money.” Plus, it’s questionable whether a lounge-like vibe is really what the regular business traveler is after. As @snooki tweeted: “I officially love virgin america airlines! They’re fricken playin usher while I check in lolol! Wheww party plane.”
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This mood-lighting capability arises from new light-emitting diode (LED) technologies that Airbus and Boeing sell as options on their new A350 and 787 Dreamliner models, respectively. LED cabin lights are expected to last roughly 10 to 20 times longer than traditional lights; Boeing says its 787 cabin lights are good for 50,000 hours. Both manufacturers used LEDs in some earlier models, but airline designers say the two new long-haul planes offer them a cabin palette that has never before been available.
Before you scoff at your airline’s in-flight entertainment, consider that meditation programming is increasingly popular—it has proven effective for both jittery and restless fliers. Virgin Atlantic has a video series that borrows from Andy Puddicombe’s popular meditation app, Headspace; Delta’s just-launched, 10-minute flicks are from YouTube favorite “OMG. I Can Meditate”; and British Airways has jumped in with a series from the Mindfulness Institute.
Virgin expects to show its first annual profit this year and hold a public offering within the next two years. Yet Richard Aboulafia, vice president at the aerospace analysis firm Teal Group, remains skeptical of Virgin’s design-first, profit-later strategy. “How about not losing money, and we’ll negotiate the rest later?” he asks. “Virgin has built a nice brand; we just don’t know if it’s big enough to survive yet.”
It’s also possible Virgin will soon be losing its biggest point of differentiation—the Big Uglies aren’t going to be all that ugly for much longer. Domestically, JetBlue has earned loyalty for its own discount-chic aesthetic and upgraded terminal at JFK. And then there’s the Dreamliner, a megaplane that’s won numerous design awards. Its maker, Boeing, is adapting the Dreamliner’s design touches to smaller planes, allowing Virgin rivals to buy in on things like shifting mood lighting and a slate of new refinements, including overhead bins that pivot away and allow passengers to stand up without risking a concussion. “From a design standpoint, these have become got-to-have features,” says Ken Dowd, vice president of design firm Teague, which consulted on the look.
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Anyone flying on a new Boeing Dreamliner or the forthcoming Airbus A330neo will benefit from mood lighting that’s specifically designed to regulate their circadian rhythm. Alternate cool and warm lighting schemes help passengers fall asleep more easily and wake up feeling refreshed—jet lag be damned. By the time the A330neo is launched next year, nearly every major carrier will be on board with the technology.
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As of now, cabin lights basically have two settings: on and off. That accounts for the jarring “lights on!” moment during an overnight, trans-Atlantic flight before flight attendants prepare to serve a mini-breakfast. You may have been asleep or enjoying the relaxing effects of a drink — and suddenly you were not.
To win over frequent fliers, Virgin America turns to high design, a nightclub feel, and preflight yoga
The aircraft itself buzzes like a nightclub. The cabin is lit purple, soft electronica crackles, and passengers can order craft beer from seat-back touchscreens. In early 2006, Virgin bought a fleet of Airbus A320s and commissioned some swank aftermarket features such as internal LED lighting that dims and brightens during long flights to simulate time changes and blue-tinted windows to block out harsh glare. Virgin is hoping to attract a demographic that is “datable and promotable,” Dimitrios Papadogonas, the company’s director of marketing, told employees at a recent in-house brand refreshment meeting. “[They are] someone you really want to hang out with on Saturday night, not go to bowling league on a Tuesday.”
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A better way, Kivi said, is to have cabin light that rises gradually, much the way a sunrise transitions from faint pink to warm glow to sunlight. “People have a jet lag and [designers] can already start to think both how to behave to prevent jet lag as much as possible,” he said. The Finnair A350 cabin has two dozen light settings, aligned with stages of a long-haul flight. It will also feature warmer, amber colors on flights arriving in Asia and cooler “Nordic blue” hues when flying into Finland. As night falls during flight, Kivi designed a roughly 20-minute “sunset” in the cabin. Another natural option Finnair may replicate in flight? “We also have the speciality of the Northern Lights,” he says, noting Finland’s northern latitudes.
Creative Director McMillin has left no accoutrement undesigned
It all started with Delta and the Westin Heavenly bed—the first big effort to improve sky-high sleeping habits back in 2013. Three years later, United is upping the ante. The airline has just announced its new Polaris business cabins, which will begin rolling out this December. One of its major draws is custom bedding from Saks Fifth Avenue (think ultra-soft duvets, pillows, and mattress cushions). Similarly, the Scandinavian carrier SAS has recently introduced Hästens brand bedding on premium seats. Perhaps the cleverest amenity, though, can be found on Etihad. No matter where on the plane you sit, the brand provides pillows that convert from standard size to neck pillows, along with eye masks that bear the words, “Do not disturb” or “Wake me for meals.”
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Oils you can apply to pulse points are among this new wave of airline offerings.
Another way to improve the flight without weighing it down is to upgrade accessories and services. When McMillin first arrived at the company, Virgin America still used plastic dishes. After splurging (in terms of ounces) on converting to ceramic dishes and real silverware, he turned to the cups. He used the expiration of Virgin’s plastic cup contract as an opportunity to redesign the thing, creating a “gemstone” shape. The bottom of each cup now reads: “Was it as refreshing for you as it was for me?” Virgin also supplies gratis headphones in silver, blue, and gray. And McMillin has customized tickets to look more like futuristic VIP passes, baggage tags to look like bracelets, and emergency seat-back cards to resemble comic strips.
McMillin hopes to hearken back to the golden age of flying while injecting modern style and sensibility into an industry that, in aesthetic terms at least, has been on an endless layover since the early ’90s. New uniforms are just one of McMillin’s playful “winks”—his term for distinctive personal touches—that could confer just enough glamour on Virgin to bring a profitable lift to the struggling airline, which next month celebrates the fifth anniversary of its first flight.
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Banking on style and design to make a difference to business travelers and the bottom line isn’t just a big bet for the small company—it’s a market imperative. Virgin has only 52 aircraft making 150 flights daily to mostly coastal cities. Many carriers have 10 or 20 times that number, meaning better departure and itinerary options, as well as more pricing flexibility. “This is the only game we can play because we don’t have those other things,” says President and Chief Executive Officer David Cush about the company’s limited schedule and lack of super-low prices. “We are focused on customers who want a more comfortable way to spend their precious time.”
This spring, Air France wised up to the fact that few travelers want to be awakened for dinner service at midnight on an overnight flight. The solution: Let premium passengers take their meals in the business-class lounge before boarding. (The service is available only in New York’s JFK for now.) The concept is taking off: British Airways’ Club World Sleeper Service, for instance, lets passengers order meals ahead of their flight departure and enjoy a nightcap on boarding instead.
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On Aug. 8, Virgin America will turn the tarmac into another kind of runway when flight attendants show off their new “utility chic” uniforms, striding the aisles in either a leather jacket, striped-sleeve sweater, and woven pants for him, or a trench coat, pencil skirt, and silk scarf for her. All of it was created with retailer Banana Republic to help bolster Virgin’s image as a leader in high-altitude couture. “The idea is to have very functional, very accessible luxury for the masses,” says Jesse McMillin, Virgin’s in-house design director. “It’s pushing the boundaries of what any other airline would do.”
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In April 2011 Virgin unveiled its handsome, energy-efficient hub, part of a $383 million renovation at San Francisco International Airport’s Terminal 2. At check-in, it trades zigzag ropes and podium-height counters for an expansive, airy lobby with red carpet and low, sleek white counters topped with fresh flowers to mimic a boutique hotel. Past security, the terminal is a hipster oasis: Slow-food restaurants, shops, and work areas are accented by long conference tables and luxe, egg-shaped chairs by designer Fritz Hansen. Passengers enjoy wine, cheese, and chocolate at the Napa Farms Market and Tyler Florence rotisserie. And yes, there’s a yoga studio.
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For every inch of lost legroom in the back of the plane, there seems to be one new amenity in the front. A disproportionate number of these new offerings are promising to give you the single thing that’s most elusive at 35,000 feet: a good night’s sleep. Here, a snapshot at the most relaxing new perks in the skies—mostly in business and first class; sorry, coach—including a few that might warrant leaving the melatonin at home.
A suite of meditation videos from Headspace, including one that helps you sleep.
Photo illustration by TMA; Photos: Corbis(5); Getty Images(1)
American Airlines, which began experimenting with LED light options in 2011, ahead of the delivery of the company’s first Boeing 777-300ER jumbo jets, has also banished green lighting from the cabin. Like Virgin Atlantic, American uses amber during the dinner service, “sort of like candlelight in a restaurant,” said Alice Liu, managing director of onboard products. For sleep periods, it uses a deep blue, which designers chose after considering — and rejecting — a reddish glow. “Red is sometimes associated with fire,” Liu said — never a good thing on an airplane.
Still, there’s hope for Virgin: Last year the airline expanded its fleet capacity 29 percent, while the rest of the industry stayed flat. It filled 82 percent of its seats per flight, level with the industry average. McMillin says first class is booked consistently enough that the company is considering expanding it.
The biggest constraint in any aeronautical project is what industry experts call “financial drag.” Design elements that add pounds wind up costing millions in fuel when factored over an entire fleet for years of travel. To counter it, Ken Bieler, Virgin’s director of engineering, used several tricks, such as replacing traditional class partitions with lightweight, transparent magenta panels that offer plane-wide views of the white leather recliners in first class, and removing the carpet dividers on the black carpeting to give the faux club a roomier feel. “I’ve got Aston Martin taste with a Ford budget, so I’ve got to figure out ways to leverage that,” Bieler says.
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Interior designers for airlines across Europe, Asia, and the U.S. have a new consideration when it comes to onboard products and service: How’s the lighting? Designers are starting to experiment with new technologies that let them illuminate the cabin in all kinds of hues. Is a pinkish-purple glow suitably soothing for boarding? Does the “amber warmth” programmed for dinner service offer flight attendants enough light by which to serve? And is the cabin at bedtime too dark? Restrooms must be located.
Virgin Atlantic has five primary color periods on its 787 flights: rose-champagne for boarding, purple-pink for drinks, “amber” for dining, another for the pre-sleep period called “work-rest-play,” a silvery glow for overnight sleep, and a waking color. Lusardi said his team, which pushes its lighting changes to aircraft electronically from Virgin’s U.K. headquarters, has banned greens and blues. They’re not Virgin Atlantic colors, nor do they make food and drink look particularly appealing.
Etihad’s pillow sprays and pulse-point oils, courtesy of Le Labo, were first to market two years ago; now the trend is going viral. Travelers on late night flights with Virgin Atlantic can spritz themselves with High Altitude, a blend of fragonia, eucalyptus, and lavender to fall asleep easily, while United is offering lavender-infused pillow spray from the U.K.-based, Soho House-affiliated Cowshed Spa.
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“We’ve always wanted to create a different kind of atmosphere aboard our aircraft and light plays exactly into our hands,” says Nik Lusardi, design manager at Virgin Atlantic Airways, one of the pioneers of using mood lighting during flight. “You can get people energized or you can relax people very, very quickly,” Lusardi said.
The cabin “goes from darkness to light in three seconds,” drawing passenger complaints, says Finnish designer Vertti Kivi, who has done Finnair lounges and recently finished work on the interior of the airline’s new A350s, which begin commercial service in October. “They all had to wake up when the lights were turned on so it gives an opportunity for us.”
A former semi-pro skateboarder, McMillin is well suited to channel Richard Branson’s branding id. He’s helped rethink nearly every aspect of the Virgin air travel experience since joining the company in 2008, adding panache to the check-in counter, gate, and cabin. The idea is to encourage business passengers searching for the cheapest, fastest, and most painless way from point A to point B to slow down and actually enjoy the trip. Folks might even be inclined to pay a tad more for it all. At least that’s the hope.