Over the last two years, I’ve flown probably 20 round trips between the DC Metro and Bay Area. My choice of airlines with non-stop flights is limited to United, JetBlue, or Virgin America. United offers the most favorable rewards program, especially considering their global reach (when cashing in). However, they’re usually the most pricey and I’ve become hooked on in-air live TV. Which leaves JetBlue and Virgin America.
While both airlines offer seat-back entertainment and services, for this post let’s focus on the free television programming experience. JetBlue provides DirecTV programming, while Virgin America “Red” serves up DISH Network. JetBlue clearly offers more channels than Virgin America, perhaps twice times as many. Additionally, JetBlue offers some of the “locals” – such as NBC. And a portion of channels you think Virgin America might tune brings up a post-installation DISH video or subscription screen – surprising after a year in service. So, on the content front, JetBlue provides more choice and a better viewing experience.
In terms of control, JetBlue television interaction is limited to a fixed panel on an armrest… which a seatmate may accidentally lean on, adjusting your volume or screen brightness. By way of comparison, VA’s armrest controls reside in a cubby mostly protected from inadvertent elbow channel changes. Additionally, the controller is tethered and can be removed from the armrest. However, VA provides a more natural way (in this day and age) of interaction by providing a touch-sensitive screen. Regarding those LCDs, JetBlue’s appear to be 4:3 while Virgin America uses a larger widescreen. Add in Virgin’s programming grid guide and VA wins on the interaction front.
If Virgin America increases their channel lineup or tunes all of the channel listed in their guide, they’d offer the superior television service. As it stands, it’s pretty much a wash – unless you’re looking for a specific channel like HGTV, in which case JetBlue is the way to go. However, at the end of the day, most of us choose flights based on convenient times and favorable pricing. Given JetBlue’s poor performance (flight delays and cancellations) this summer, as of last night I’m back on Virgin America despite my preference of flying into Oakland and watching ESPN. Content may be king, but getting to my destination on time trumps all.