Interview: James Weatherson, Red Inflight Entertainment Engineer on Virgin America

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A few weeks back I hopped onto my first Virgin America flight with Aircell’s Gogo service on-board. It wasn’t the first time I’ve reviewed Gogo and if you recall I was on the first commercial Gogo flight with American Air. The plan was to interview James Weatherson, Virgin America’s inflight entertainment engineer, while I was up in the air, but there was a scheduling mix up and the interview never went down. So we opted to do it the old fashioned way. Below is my brief conversation with James about Red and where it’s headed.

CrunchGear: Other than some content changes, I haven’t seen a whole lot of new stuff for Red. What can we expect to see this year from VX?

James Weatherson: Actually, we’re now right in the middle of a Red software upgrade that will allow us to create an even more robust entertainment content platform at every seat. Our platform is actually pretty new and ambitious for a system at 37,000 feet in-flight, so the upgrades that will go live this Summer are mainly focused on improving functionality, reliability and the speed of the Linux-based system. We’re aiming to increase the speed of the system and usability, as well as allow us to further build out the content platform. So we’re planning more video games, movies and other content in the latter half of 2009 thanks to these upgrades. And we’re also making some changes that came as suggestions from guests who emailed us in-flight via the Red feedback in-box, like being able to listen to your music play-list and play video games at the same time and giving business travelers receipts for their food – so when they swipe their credit card at their seat, they’re emailed a receipt. You’ll be able to do that as of June. The former is a relief for me, as the sound effects on DOOM for some reason get super annoying when you reach hour three of a transcon flight.

CG: Are the shopping and book services going live this year?

JW: Yep, once we get these software upgrades in place we plan to go live with the Shop platform in late 2009, with the Read section to follow. Stay tuned.

CG: I heard a nasty rumor that VX was thinking of getting rid of the touch-screens because the majority of passengers don’t know how to use a touch-screen. Any truth to that?

JW: No, we don’t plan to go retro on you on Red. Most of our guests are pretty tech-savvy and a lot of them have an iphone or other touchscreen PDA on them when they fly, so they work the system just fine. We do actually mention the importance of a “soft touch” in both our in-flight guide (attached) about the Red system and our flight teams also mention it when they explain how the system works. It has not really been a problem, but the interface just works better with light tapping, as opposed to thumping – just like an itouch or iphone. However, we are disabling the touch-screen on the games only, as the remotes just work better – that change goes live with our Summer upgrades in June.

CG: Maybe VX should make a video for people to watch that shows them how to use the touch-screen. I know I can’t stand people who sit behind me and punch the screen. What do you think?

JW: I like the video idea! We’ve got a depiction of that in our in-flight guide (PDF), and the caricature is of our head of web marketing, Jen Larson, because it is her pet peeve. If we do a video, we got to think of an appropriate spokesperson who could demonstrate that almost anyone can use Red. Maybe a Miss USA contestant?

CG: Anything else we can look forward to that you can talk about?

JW: We’re focusing pretty aggressively on our fleet-wide WiFi roll-out. We’ll be the first and only airline to have it on every single flight by this Memorial Day (it is now on 24 of 28 planes). And we just became the first airline to offer absinthe in-flight. Although, on second thought: the image of guests twittering at 37,000 ft while drinking absinthe is somewhat disturbing.

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