Lifestyle

Virgin Atlantic's seat messaging system flagged by travelers for years

Airline says it will remove feature

CRAWLEY, United Kingdom - "I've been in my share of compromising positions," says the guy in the airline company video. "Here's my guide to getting lucky at 35,000 feet."

"Try treating her, or him, to something delicious using the new seat-to-seat feature of Red, the Virgin America inflight entertainment system," he goes on.

"Just order a drink, meal or snack, select his or her seat, and don't forget to seal the deal with a suggested seat-to-seat chat.

"I'm not a betting man, but I'd say your chances of deplaning with a plus one are at least 50%."

It sounds perilously close to the kind of sexual harassment experienced by Jessica Van Meir on a Virgin Atlantic flight this week.

Van Meir was on an eight-hour flight from London to Washington, DC, when she says she received messages from what appeared to be a group of passengers she had passed on the way to the restroom.

One called her "tidy" and "babe," while another, going by the name "big d*** swinger," sent her winking emojis. A third, "dirty mike," told her, "Welcome to hell."

Van Meir says Virgin Atlantic crew addressed the situation immediately, and a spokesperson for the airline said that Virgin has "zero tolerance for any disruptive or inappropriate behavior."

A spokesperson told CNN Travel on Wednesday that, "This is the first time we've ever been made aware of unwanted messages appearing through the chat system," which was introduced 19 years ago.

The airline says they are reviewing their inflight entertainment system, and that seat-to-seat messaging is already being phased out across the fleet.

 

Branson's 'playful spoof'

 

But the man advocating "getting lucky at 35,000 feet" is none other than Virgin founder Richard Branson, in a 2013 video promoting the Virgin America airline.

Titled "Sir Richard Branson's Guide to Getting Lucky," messages pop up behind Branson on the video, including "pinpoint the object of your affection," "Hey girl," and "Your seat or mine?"

A spokesperson for Virgin told CNN: "The video is from 2013. At the time it was created as a playful spoof, however it is not something that would ever be considered today."

The tongue-in-cheek video was made to promote Virgin America's inflight entertainment system, which allowed travelers to pick out other passengers on a digital seatmap, message them, and send them a drink, meal or snack.

The messaging system has been in place on Virgin Atlantic planes for even longer -- since 2000, according to a spokesperson for the airline. Virgin Atlantic planes, however, have never had the ability to send drinks or snacks to others on board.

Virgin America was disbanded in 2018, when it was integrated into Alaska Airlines. And Virgin Atlantic confirmed to CNN that new aircraft joining the fleet will not have the technology. The 12 A350s set to join the fleet (of which two have already arrived) do not have the capability. They will eventually replace the 747s, A340s and A330s that do.

The spokesperson said it was being phased out because "it's a really underused facility, especially now, with the evolution of on-board Wi-Fi in recent years.

"People who want to message each other tend to use WhatsApp and similar functions to chat to their friends who they're not sitting with."

 

Passenger reaction

 

Some passengers love the system.

Juliana Shallcross, who writes family travel blog Trips and Giggles, was a frequent Virgin America flier, and used the service to communicate with her family when they were sitting in different rows.

"I remember flying with the children, and my husband was separated from me. I used the chat service to check up on him and whichever child he had with him," she tells CNN.

"Also I loved how you could order snacks for another seat -- that was helpful for parents traveling too.

"I did order snacks and drinks for my husband once when he was in a different seat from me, but I probably did it as a lark."

She said she feels "ambivalent" about the service being disbanded.

But although Virgin Atlantic insists that Jessica Van Meir's complaint is the first they've had in nearly two decades, the darker side of the messaging service has been predicted for years.

"I'm surprised this didn't happen sooner," says Liam Quigley, a freelance reporter from New York City who has used the service on both Virgin Atlantic and Virgin America flights.

Quigley -- who calls the men on Van Meir's flight "such creeps" -- first used it on a Virgin America flight in 2016, while traveling with his then-girlfriend.

"I had exhausted the inflight entertainment that was interesting to me so I wanted to use the feature they'd advertised," he says.

 

'Flirt with someone you saw in the gate area'

 

Quigley set up a username of "Richard B" [Branson]. "I made a big [chat] room and added as many people as I could to it, and told them they were being upgraded to first class," he says.

"Mainly they ignored it or left the conversation. I think at most someone said, 'Who is this?' One guy across the aisle gave me the strangest look."

But he said the chat feature was so cumbersome to use and the type pad and touchscreen so unwieldly, that it was difficult to use.

"I tried to send random people soft drinks but the system barely worked and the screen was barely functional. I had to manually add seat numbers in a very cumbersome way. It's a bizarre little feature that in 2004 would have seemed really cool."

He wasn't worried about getting in trouble, he says, because "I thought that was the intended use, joking around with other passengers."

In fact, Virgin America's website used to advertise the chat feature, suggesting passengers could "flirt with someone you saw in the gate area, you know the one."

In 2017, seeing it was still on the site, he tweeted that, "If the chat actually worked they might be liable for encouraging sexual harassment."

The Virgin group has traditionally been known for its equality and diversity initiatives.

Virgin Atlantic alone has various networking and leadership programs for women, and hosted a "Pride Flight" from London to New York in June 2019, crewed entirely by LGBT+ pilots and cabin crew. Its facilities for travelers with disabilities are regularly lauded as some of the best of the business.


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