A ‘love letter’ from a nervous flyer

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  • <B>Writer Wendy Davis Johnson </B>is a nervous flyer, but she is full of praise for Virgin America after flying on the airline between Boston and Los Angeles.

    Writer Wendy Davis Johnson is a nervous flyer, but she is full of praise for Virgin America after flying on the airline between Boston and Los Angeles.

LOS ANGELES Over the last 30 years, I’ve done a lot of flying. On every single flight, I was, at best, nervous. Sometimes, I was white-knuckled. It’s worth noting that it doesn’t take much for me to switch from anxious to terrified. Just a hint of clear air turbulence makes my heart beat like a sledgehammer.

My anxiety has more to do with whether a plane will take off, fly and land safely than whether a passenger has nefarious designs to bring it down. And the state of my nerves is directly correlated with the state of the weather.

I wish it were otherwise. I’d love to be able to “slip the surly bonds of Earth and dance the skies on laughter-silvered wings” as John Gillespie Magee describes in his poem ‘High Flight’. Alas, I’ve never once “topped the windswept heights with easy grace”.

Familiarity with multiple airlines and airports has helped damp down some of my anxiety. But deviate from the familiar and I’m back to a nervous square one.

Given my low tolerance level for surprises at 30,000 feet, you’d expect what follows to be a litany of complaints about a flight from hell. But no. This is a love letter of sorts to an airline that just might be able to put an end to my flying phobia.

Earlier this month, I had to travel from Bermuda to Boston and then to Los Angeles to do some interviews for an assignment I’m working on for my master’s degree. I wanted to use air mile credits to keep the costs down. Virgin America was the only choice for the Boston-L.A leg that fit my tight schedule and accepted the type of points I’d accumulated.

I’ve never flown Virgin America before, or any of Sir Richard Branson’s Virgin-branded airlines for that matter. Cue the quickened pulse.

I flew Delta to Boston (familiar, and always a pleasure) and the next day, with mounting trepidation, used Virgin’s check-in kiosk at Logan Airport to print the airline’s red square boarding pass for Flight 365 to Los Angeles. I had no bags to check, so I went through security and straight to the departure lounge.

Beginning 40 minutes before boarding, gate attendants gave regular updates on the process and when it would start. Wonder of wonders, boarding started exactly when they said it would.

Cheery crew dressed in Virgin America’s black and red Banana Republic-designed uniform greeted passengers at the end of the gangway. Mauve and pink lighting gave the cabin of the Airbus 320 a calm, spa-like feel.

Settling into my seat — comfy black leather, another nod to the Virgin America brand I sorted out my gear to make sure that everything I’d need for the next six hours was within easy reach. You never know when unexpected turbulence just typing those two words gives me pause will keep you from getting something out of the overhead bin.

I was tickled to discover an array of choices for in-flight entertainment: an interactive screen on the seatback in front of each passenger offered satellite TV, free movies on demand, video games and Wi-Fi. As a news junkie, the chance to catch up on (and be diverted by) news while flying across the US was manna from heaven.

The flight was full but boarding moved along efficiently. We taxied onto the runway on time and were quickly and smoothly airborne. The snowy remnants of Athena, the nor’easter that made landing in Boston the day before truly frightful, had disappeared. Winds were light. Skies were blue.

I was really starting to feel comfortable, particularly after watching the inflight safety message (which you can see here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eyygn8HFTCo). Industry wags say Virgin has reinvented the safety message genre. I guess the airline paid attention to the National Transportation Board’s finding in 2006 that more than half of all passengers don’t pay attention to an in-flight safety demonstration.

Virgin America uses cartoons and a liberal dose of humour (“For the .0000l percent of you who have never used a seat belt before, insert the metal end into the buckle…”) to get their message across. For some reason, watching animated nuns and matadors demonstrate how to use an oxygen mask lends a sense of improbability to emergencies, just the ticket for a Nervous Nellie like me.

The safety message’s playful professionalism extended to in-flight announcements and the crew’s behaviour. The captain thanked us “on behalf of me and my ex-wife” for choosing Virgin America. In between answering call buttons and rolling their service carts up and down the aisles, attendants entertained restless toddlers and chatted with passengers as they got up to stretch their legs.

In-flight entertainment systems don’t always work the way they’re supposed to, but Virgin America’s (named “Red”) does. Although you have to pay for Wi-Fi, it was worth $10 to get an alert while I was working on some e-mails that General David Petraeus had resigned from his post as Director of the CIA. I also had the option to watch various cable news pundits discuss what it all meant, coming just one day after President Barack Obama’s historic reelection to a second term. I could even follow Twitter as the scandal unfolded.

Passengers use Red to order meals, too. There’s no charge for food in main cabin select and first class; you give Red a credit card in economy seats (like most airlines, Virgin America is cashless). If you want to, you can place your order while watching a movie or TV, switching back and forth between screens without interruption.

Following the Petraeus drama in real time and catching up on some work made six hours pass before I knew it. About 40 minutes from LA, our captain announced we’d be starting our descent shortly. He gave an update on weather and told us that a westerly wind could make landing slightly bumpy.

Uh oh. Surely it wouldn’t be anything like the landing at Logan the day before, so iffy that passengers burst into spontaneous applause when we touched down? By the way, this had nothing to do with the Delta captain’s agility in navigating the crosswinds. He did a masterful job, but he was dealing with 50-knot gusts and a messy mix of rain and snow, not gentle sea breezes blowing in from the Pacific.

Mercifully for my blood pressure, the landing at LAX was nothing like the one at Logan. In fact, if the captain hadn’t said anything, I wouldn’t have noticed the slight choppiness before we landed. (Well, I would have noticed. Once a nervous flyer, always a nervous flyer.)

From beginning to end, my inaugural flight with Virgin America was a pleasure. Courteous service, useful products that worked and easy comfort made the experience a treat.

I know Virgin America can’t control the weather, but they seem to understand what makes flying enjoyable. In this cost-cutting era, when a flight often feels like an endurance test, that’s real added value.

I’m looking forward to my return trip and hope it’s as good as the first one was. Of course, I’ll worry my way through it. Once a nervous flyer …

Wendy Davis Johnson is interning with The Royal Gazette as a part of the requirements of a master's degree in journalism programme she's pursuing at Harvard Extension School. She can be reached at wendydavisjohnson@fas.harvard.edu.

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Published Nov 21, 2012 at 8:00 am (Updated Nov 20, 2012 at 2:58 pm)

A ‘love letter’ from a nervous flyer

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