Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Mile-high Theater

If you’ve never flown Virgin America before—as I hadn’t before this weekend—you may not know that there’s an airline out there clever and coy enough to theatricalize the commercial air travel experience.

It all starts with the almost neon blue and purple cabin lights.  I walked in feeling like I was entering a concept bar in SOMA with $12 cocktails.

I wasn’t too far off.  The first thing the lead flight attendant said on the intercom was “let’s get this party started.”  He then told us that our airplane was his “second-favorite kind” of flying machine, the first being a spaceship.

But the real highlight was the safety instructional video, which simultaneously said all the things airlines are legally required to say—about how to pull tabs to tighten an oxygen mask, a warning to that guy who was thinking about tampering with the smoke detector in the bathroom—while simultaneously sending up those videos.  It’s not just the lines themselves, like, “for the .001% of you who have never seen a seatbelt before.”  There’s also the sarcastic tone of the narrator, whose every sentence drips with disdain, seemingly asking us, “Can you believe we have to tell you this again?  In fact, why are you even listening?”  Wild Brain’s artful illustrations, which look like New Yorker cartoons in motion, are also great in that they make the personality-less figures who usually populate these videos into real human beings with improbable flying-related foibles.  My favorite was the nun with the arsenal of sophisticated personal electronic devices she didn’t want to turn off.

The whole tone was very knowing, even a little presumptuous and smug in the way it assumed its audience consisted of experienced fliers, all insiders to the joke.  I wonder how many passengers on the average flight are flying for the first time, or at least pretty inexperienced.  I wonder if anyone has ever complained to Virgin about the snark.

Insensitive insider that I am, I like it.  Virgin clearly recognizes who its target audience is—I wasn’t the only one who was smiling—which is more than I can say for a lot of theaters.  It’s also a clever, original way of bringing artistic vision where it hitherto hadn’t existed.  But most of all, I like the suggestion that this whole traveling experience—the stuff the flight attendants say, the way we’re corralled like animals, and even, if you’ll permit a stretch, the security routine—is nothing but a charade.

You could say I’m reading too much into this (or that I’m four years late in writing this), but it’s probably no wonder that this concept came from an airline that’s also owned by a record company.


  1. One reader has asked me if the marketing that's clearly at work here undermines the endeavor's artistic merit. A solid point. I guess I shouldn't have used the word "theater" so carelessly; what I was trying to convey is an appreciation for the concept on its own terms -- which maybe should be called "theater as marketing."

  2. I have to admit... I always liked flying Virgin due to all these shenanigans. Clever you for considering it theater, I just kind of giggled and soaked it up without thinking.
    Hope you are well! Greetings from Austria! And... I'm doing my best to get back to the Bay area this time next year! Horah!

  3. Dietlinde! I was like... "Austria? Austria!" We miss you out here, hon. I really hope you do make it back -- speaking of shenanigans, we'll have to try for our first shenanigan-less bike ride. I've been neglecting it lately, but Brian of course is not one to be deterred by mid-semester stress.

    Also: Any chance you'll be in Texas over Christmas?