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Virgin America spiffs up at Logan

Carrier hopes deft touches will stand out from competitors

By Nicole C. Wong
Globe Staff / February 10, 2009
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Virgin America is spending nearly half a million dollars making its new home at Logan International Airport's Terminal B feel more like your home.

The start-up airline, which offers passengers personal televisions and food whenever they want it during flights, has designed its check-in kiosks as white acrylic tables that could pass for minimalist living room furniture. It's decorating the ticketing area with potted flowers. And its lost-luggage office plans to soothe passengers with complimentary water and coffee while playing music from a boombox.

These soft touches extend the carrier's vision of creating a relaxing environment for travelers at every point in their experience. The subtle distinction might help Virgin stand out from the fierce competition at Logan, where no airline has attracted more than 18 percent of passengers. Virgin's first flights take off for San Francisco and Los Angeles on Thursday.

"The airport terminal is a huge part of our flight experience," said Todd Pawlowski, Virgin America's vice president of airports and guest services. "When we can control a facility, we like to change the aesthetics and the approach and the flow."

Boston is Virgin's eighth destination, behind San Francisco, Los Angeles, New York, Washington, D.C., Seattle, Las Vegas, and San Diego. The Burlingame, Calif., carrier finalized a plan to begin service with the Massachusetts Port Authority, the agency that runs Logan, in December.

While it usually takes six months to change airport signs, renovate ticket counters, and do everything else required for the arrival of an airline, Vir gin decided to do it on two months' notice, said Sam Sleiman, Massport's director of capital programs. The changes include putting up welcoming touches, like LED signs at the ticket counter that can show electronic messages rooting for the Red Sox.

"They're a little bit more flashy than other airlines," Sleiman said.

Virgin completely remodels ticket counters when it enters a new market. At Logan, the ticket counter's computer monitors will be on swivel sticks so airline employees can spin their screens around to show passengers what they're doing.

Also, the screen's position encourages ticket agents to look into passengers' eyes and then glance off to the side - instead of looking down - to complete check-ins, Pawlowski said.

To further facilitate employee interaction with passengers, Virgin's luggage scales will be only a few inches tall in Boston, not the foot-tall ones used in San Francisco. That's designed to make it easier for agents to step over the scales and assist passengers farther away from the ticket counter.

Of course, the fancy digs could come with unintended consequences: A few months ago at the San Francisco airport, a passenger using the check-in kiosk watered the fake orchids atop the kiosk table with leftover soda.

"It leaked into the kiosks and fried our computers," Pawlowski said.

So Virgin has designed its Boston kiosk tables with smaller computer processors and interior pathways to funnel fluids away from the electronics. "I'm not going to say it can't happen again, but I'm hoping it doesn't."

Nicole C. Wong can be reached at nwong@globe.com.

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