Virgin America's inaugural flight

We're at JFK airport right now, for the inaugural flight of Virgin America from New York to San Francisco, and Sir Richard Branson just stepped on stage.

Update: We've landed! Check it out after the break.

9:27AM: "I don't know who organized the weather today!" New York got nailed by some horrible weather this morning, and we're running about an hour late. Stephen Colbert, who the plane is named after and is supposed to be christening the plane this morning, is stuck in traffic, along with a few other main figures. We're going to carry on all the same. Sir Richard mentions how hard this has been to get off the ground, but it's finally happening. "It's time Americans get the airline they deserve, it's been much too long." Applause.

9:30AM: And we're off to our gate! We'll keep you posted on the proceedings as we can, and be landing on the west coast around 1PM PST.

9:58AM: A few comments have wondered what exactly this flight has to do with gadgets. Hopefully this hands on we did earlier this year speaks for itself, and we'll be playing with all the gadgetry during the cross country flight to let you know just how great in-flight Doom really is. We're also paying our return flight back, so it ain't no freebie.

10:01AM: The plane is currently taxiing. We just added a few new pictures to the gallery.

10:08AM: We're boarding now. They called out Group A for boarding, but there were no takers, so everybody has been invited on board.


10:50AM: We're sitting next to Charles, who conveniently designed the RED computer systems on board, so we'll be bugging him for the next few hours on all the boring intricacies. We've already started up a chat with Charles and "bubba," and are currently discussing Doom and bumping into a truncating bug. Charles has been working on the system for about three and a half years, and says it's still in a sort of ongoing beta state, with features being added pretty regularly. 15 max users in a chat (to keep you from inviting the whole cabin), and plane staff have mod privileges -- aren't you glad we asked? TV chats have unlimited participants.

11:10AM: Charles is doing a bit of in-flight tech support, and apparently somebody in row 9 managed to crash their system. We're jealous of their obvious hacking skills.

11:14AM: Just in case you didn't know, the planes won't have in-flight internet until 2008, since VA is still working on the air-to-ground connection. There is a single Sprint link for credit card transactions and such. All the media is pulled off of onboard servers, or you can watch the Dish Network channels live. Picture-in-picture video is available while ordering food, always nice.

11:26AM: We heard it from a fellow tech head that the built-in USB ports don't have enough power to charge an iPhone, so we're giving it a test.

11:29AM: After a few minutes fumbling around, looking for the USB plug, we finally plugged the iPhone in, and indeed no dice. Guess who forgot to bring their AC adapter? Our iPod nano charges just fine over USB, and our Nokia E62 was never much into that whole USB charging game.

11:34AM: Almost an hour in and we haven't played any games yet. Shameful. Looking at the menu, we're apparently not missing much. There's Doom, and about a dozen of lame knockoff puzzle games. Oh, and some knockoff arcade titles: "Vectoroids," and "Penguin Command." We choose Doom.

11:44AM: We suck at Doom. Graphics are a bit choppy, and the controls are a bit loose, but mainly we're just not very good at escaping from assorted alien menaces. The game paused while they announced an illusionist for in-flight entertainment, but it wasn't hard to resume once the announcement was done.

12:03PM: Spent some time chatting, went back to Doom and promptly died. Let's try some more passive entertainment options.

12:41PM: Charles introduced me to Yasu Enokido and Paul Margis, COO and CEO, respectively, of Panasonic Avionics, who build the hardware behind RED. Turns out the Virgin America hardware is a little dated due to the amount of time Virgin was held up in regulations. Other current Panasonic systems are up to 4x as fast, and while the RED system includes an AMD Geo processor (similar to that of the OLPC XO) and video acceleration, Panasonic also has versions that include 3D acceleration. The main limitations on aircraft are size and heat, but that hasn't stopped them from stuffing 23-inch displays into certain aircraft overseas.

12:50PM: While the LAN jacks are all networked, apparently they don't communicate with one another, to keep hackers from messing around too much with the system. That means no on-board LAN party for you, but it does sound like network Doom play is in the works. Charles also confirmed to me that there will be open Linux development down the road.

1:16PM: We took some time to flip through all the options on RED (check out images in the gallery above), and finally managed to crash the thing, now our flight is complete. It takes a while to restart, but eventually we landed back on the home screen. Other than that pesky little crash, we're fairly impressed.

The video content offerings -- all based on the plane's own media server -- are relatively extensive, and while the prices might be a bit steep compared to online rental services such as Unbox, we think plenty of passengers won't mind spending $6 to $8 on a movie. Music videos, however, are free. The plane will probably need to boost its current 600GB-ish of storage if the selection of such media is to be truly relevant beyond pop lovers, but we're suckers for Mika's "Grace Kelly," so we got our money's worth. The Dish Network coverage is no better than anything you might've seen on other airlines, but luckily you can also purchase TV shows for $2 a pop.

The music area takes a while to shuffle through, but it's well stocked with "best of" songs by "best of" artists, and you shouldn't have a problem finding something to fit your taste. You can create your own playlists on the fly, and browse other elements of RED while you listen. The radio stations were generic enough, but enjoyable.

In all honesty, we can't see ourselves spending much time in the games section of RED, but once they get some better titles in there and tighten up those controls, it could be a fun time waster.

Speaking of control, the tethered controller is pretty slick, offering traditional media controls on one side, with a full QWERTY keyboard and gamepad controls on the other. The letter keys are small and difficult to push, but the game buttons are comfortable enough.

Chatting is quite the novel experience, unfortunately nobody much was taking advantage of it, so there was no one to talk to. TV chat is particularly neat, and we're sure we'd get a lot of use out of the chat features were we on a traditional flight and particularly on a flight with friends. The email and text message functions aren't currently operational.

There's a "read" button that does nothing at this point, but apparently ebook content is on the way.

You can order food straight from RED, and it's a particularly speedy product to choose what you want and pay for it. If you're not comfortable with getting your chow this way, flight attendants will be strolling the cabin with WiFi tablets to take your order.

Also planned for the system is in-flight shopping, but it's not quite ready for prime time yet.

A "kids play" button takes you to all the kid-specific content on RED, along with allowing parents to set controls on what their kids can watch.

Finally, a "quick nav" option offers a map of all available functions of the device.

3:36PM: After a bit more wandering around the cabin and a couple minutes of our "Die Hard" selection -- just a disclaimer, we aren't paying for food or for media downloads on this flight -- we went up to first class and interviewed Sir Richard Branson. We'll have a full transcript up in a few.

3:47PM: Just a heads up, we're plugged into the seat's power jack and the laptop is charging fine.

3:54PM: A few more minutes of skipping around in "Die Hard" and the wonky playback controls are really starting to annoy.

5:20PM (2:20PM PST): We've arrived! We were greeted by a horde of well wishers in the San Francisco airport, including the Mayor of San Francisco, Gavin Newsom. After they had enough of their hooting and hollering, there was a short and sweet press conference.

The airport director welcomed Virgin America to his airport, and introduced Mayor Newsom to the stage. "Man, this took a long time." He welcomes Virgin America as well -- so much welcoming going on. He comments on how the spirit of Virgin America and the Virgin brand meshes with San Francisco. He also congratulated Virgin America CEO Fred Reid, who ran through the NY rain to catch the flight.

After much consternation, Newsom has decided that today is not Barry Bonds day in San Francisco, as he declared earlier, but in fact Virgin America day. Don't feel bad for Bonds: he's getting the whole month named after him.

5:58PM (2:58PM PST): Newsom also announced that San Francisco will be "painting the town red" in honor of the Virgin America launch, with several SF landmarks getting a temporary red makeover.

And introducing the CEO of Virgin America, Fred Reid. "This airline is created by people that love." Fred says the question was, "can we just maybe create an airline people love? The answer was just two words: why not?" Kind of answered that question with a question there, Fred, but we'll let it slide. "Ladies and gentlemen, Richard Branson."

Richard's had a long day, but he's still a fan: "We had a little baby, and this baby is called Virgin... smothered for four years... born today." He mentions, as has everyone, the difficulty of getting this airline to fly. "America values quality, and we're finally doing it with an airline." There's sad news, too: "Fred's put his heart and soul into this, and due to the arcane laws in America, he's going to have to move on." Much hugging and applause, and a bit more welcoming and thank you-ing, and we're done.

Thanks for following along, we'll keep updating this post with relevant photos, and flesh out the gallery. Stay tuned for the interview with Sir Richard Branson later today.