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aug 07

The alpha airline for budget travelers?

The new low-cost carrier Virgin America takes flight tomorrow (Tuesday), and I dropped by JFK airport this morning to receive a tour of one of its new planes.

My guide was Adam Wells, the man most responsible for designing what's in the hulls of Virgin America's aircraft. We walked through a plane sitting on the tarmac. Adam pointed to the tinted windows, which filter out harsh sunlight. He said that the glare-reducing windows combine with soft interior lighting to help passengers appear healthier. Once he pointed this out, it became obvious: There was no harsh yellow and green light, which makes passengers in many standard airplane cabins appear washed out. "The goal is to make passengers feel more relaxed," he said. And his theory is that passengers will relax more if they look around and see other people looking relaxed.

The airline's seats feel more like the seats you would find in a Mercedes-Benz than in the economy-class section of an airplane. Under each seat there's a hidden bucket that prevents your tush from feeling any metal bars through the seat cushion. (Thus, the seat avoids the common "bump in the rump" problem that makes so many air travelers so irritated.) The upholstery also cradles the spine a bit more than the typical airline seat.

Adam was quick to point out another of the features he championed: A sleek mini-bar at the back of the coach class cabin from which passengers can fetch waters and sodas in mid-flight. If you want food, you press the button marked "food" on the remote control that is hidden in your armrest, place an order using a touchscreen TV, and then swipe your credit card through the bottom of your seatback screen to pay.

My favorite unique service is that you can use the "Qwerty" keyboard on the back of your seat's remote control to sound off about your experience. When was the last time you heard of coach class passengers being encouraged to email a customer satisfaction survey to corporate headquarters in mid-flight?

Earlier: Virgin America has sparked a price war.

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Note:This story was accurate when it was published. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.

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