I'm old and Virgin America's new site is too cool for me

By Paul Bradley Carr , written on May 23, 2014

From The News Desk

Having (apparently) finally solved the tech issues around its booking back-end, Virgin America is launching a shiny new booking website.

The site, which you can see here, is still in beta mode so it's reasonable to expect a few bugs here and there. But the design shows an airlines that's, once again, trying to set itself apart from rivals by reaching for young, cool, affluent traveler.

That's important. For years, Virgin has had the coastal kidz market sewn up: their fleet was newer, their crew younger and their aesthetic closer to that of a nightclub than a plane. Unsurprisingly, the SF-based airline quickly became a favorite for tech workers -- even those who could afford to fly private. At PandoMonthly, Dustin Moskovitz admitted that he still flies Virgin America's coach class because it's better than first class in a lot of other domestic carriers.

Or at least it used to be. Virgin America is no longer the coolest airline in the (domestic) sky, or the most luxurious. Virgin used to be the only airline with reliable wifi, but now American Airlines offers wifi on the bulk of its domestic fleet. Several other domestic carriers are now offering lie-flat beds in first class, making Virgin's once best-in-class seats look almost restrictive. The competition chomping at its heels prompted Virgin to finally roll out a loyalty program -- with Gold and Silver status (disclosure/possible humblebrag: I have gold status, due to my frequent hops between my home in Vegas and Pando's home in SF) offering increased miles and an advance window to pay for upgrades. But this too is already looking tired when rival airlines offer complementary upgrades to top tier fliers.

Virgin's previous attempts to reassert itself amongst its young, affluent target demo have made things worse. Sarah Lacy has written before at her frustration, as a regular Virgin America traveller, at being told she couldn't bring her young children with her through the priority line, or into the company's new lounge at LAX. Even the airline's safety demos seem designed to polarize...

Shoo-op, shoo-waaap indeed.

And so to this new website, which certainly nails the company's colors to the mast (tail?). It's very different from traditional airline booking sites, and that's something which is likely to further endear it to younger travellers, while further making old people like me feel... well.. old.

The booking flow now looks like every signup form for every cool app you've ever seen, scrolling up and down through the various options available, and every so often jumping back arbitrarily when it decides it needs you to reconfirm something...

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...but much as I'd love to gripe that I prefer the old version, I really don't.

I grudgingly admit, the new site not only looks far better, it works better too. For example, the old booking flow would abruptly demand you figure out how to login right before confirming your booking, in the new version, everything is in the right place at the right time. The old site forced you to expand a box on the front page before you could actually pick your travel dates. Not any more. Someone has really spent some time listening to users before building this thing.

There are a few bugs, of course: If you forget to say that you want a one-way flight then you have to start all over again as soon as you select that option.

But the only major quibble I have with the new site, really, is the quibble I have (and am probably supposed to have, because I'm old and the company doesn't really want me to "get it") with Virgin America generally. When it comes time to choose my seat I really just want one piece of information: Which seats are available for me to choose. The old system made this very clear: Available seats were dark and clickable, taken seats were faded out and not clickable.

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The new site has decided that every seat occupant needs to have a "personality," in the form of a silly avatar that passengers can choose on booking. I mean, what the fuck does this mean?

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A suggestion (that the company has likely already thought of): If you're going to allow people to express themselves through their seat choices, go the whole hog and let them add their Twitter or Facebook avatar. (And then, of course,  watch as everyone creepily clusters round the prettiest girl or guy on the party place.) These stupid purple faces are just weird.

Again, though, this is less of a gripe about Virgin America's cool new site -- which really is very well done -- and more a gripe about my favorite airline -- and still, for my money, the one offering the best service in the sky -- doing everything it can to make me feel old, grumpy and confused.

Given how often I travel, and the fact that the company is likely to IPO this year, I have to assume they've made a calculation that for every grumpy old bastard like me, there are a thousand cool kids who will lap this stuff up. Or at the very least that we grumpy bastards will learn to lighten up.