Several airlines are betting that holiday air travel might not be as bad with free Wi-Fi on board.
AirTran, Delta and Virgin America said Monday that they are pairing with Google Chrome, a free Web browser, to offer free Gogo Inflight Internet to passengers on domestic flights.
That translates to roughly 15 million travelers on upwards of 700 planes from Nov. 20 through Jan. 2. Gogo is an in-flight broadband Internet service that offers rates anywhere from $4.95 for up to an hour and a half to $49.95 for a six-session package.
Last year, Google tried out a combination of free Wi-Fi in airports as well as on planes. That won’t be the case this year.
-- Tiffany Hsu
Photo: Virgin America passengers using Wi-Fi on board in 2009. Credit: Virgin America
Commercial space tourism got a boost Sunday when Virgin Galactic's rocket ship successfully completed its first manned test flight at the Mojave Air and Space Port.
The rocket plane, dubbed SpaceShipTwo, was dropped from a carrier aircraft at 45,000 feet and made an unpowered glide for more than 10 minutes before landing on the desert runway.
The carrier aircraft, which resembles a flying catamaran because of its two fuselages, and the six-passenger rocket plane are in the midst of a test-flight program that will continue until Virgin Galactic, the space tourism company that owns the planes, believes it can begin commercial operations.
Instead of launching a rocket into space, the carrier craft will fly SpaceShipTwo under its wing to 50,000 feet, where the spaceship will separate and blast off. The craft will climb to the edge of space, or about 60 miles above the Earth's surface.
At that suborbital altitude, passengers will experience weightlessness and see the curvature of the Earth. The price for the experience: $200,000.
Virgin Galactic, founded by British billionaire Richard Branson, hopes to make its first passenger flight sometime next year from the yet-to-be finished Spaceport America in New Mexico. The company said it has taken about 370 reservations for the ride.
Branson was present during Sunday's flight.
"For the first time since we seriously began the project in 2004, I watched the world's first manned commercial spaceship landing on the runway at Mojave Air and Space Port and it was a great moment," he said in a statement. "Now, the sky is no longer the limit and we will begin the process of pushing beyond to the final frontier of space itself over the next year."
Tech-conscious airline Virgin America has launched a new program with social-analytics firm Klout that will offer top "Twitter influencers" one free, round-trip flight from Los Angeles or San Francisco to Toronto any time between June 23 and Aug. 23.
In order to qualify for Virgin America's program, users need to create a Klout account and link it to their Twitter profiles. From there, Klout examines how many followers the user has, how often their profile updates are being shared with others and several other factors. If it determines that the user is a top influencer, Klout will e-mail the user to say they are eligible to take advantage of the offer.
Top influencers will also be invited to Virgin America's June 29 Toronto launch event, which will officially kick off the inclusion of Toronto as one of the airline's hubs.
Virgin America says it doesn't expect anything in return. Users won't be required to tweet about accepting the offer, nor will they need to talk about taking a Virgin America flight. It seems that the airline is simply experimenting with social networking to try and get the word out about its new hub. All in all, it seems like a pretty good marketing idea.
Those interested in winning a round-trip flight from Los Angeles or San Francisco to Toronto can sign up on the Virgin America Klout page. The deadline is July 15.
Commercial space travel moved a little closer to reality Monday when Virgin Galactic’s mother ship and rocket plane took to the skies for its first "captive carry" test flight at the Mojave Air and Space Port.
The carrier aircraft, which resembles a flying catamaran because of its two fuselages, and the six-passenger rocket plane, dubbed SpaceShipTwo, are beginning a test flight program that will continue until Virgin believes it can begin commercial operations.
Instead of launching a rocket into space, the carrier craft will fly SpaceShipTwo under its wing to 50,000 feet, where the spaceship will separate and blast off. The craft will climb to about 60 miles above the Earth's surface. At that suborbital altitude, passengers will experience weightlessness and see the curvature of the Earth. The price for the experience: $200,000.
“The captive-carry flight signifies the start of what we believe will be extremely exciting and successful spaceship flight test program,” said Burt Rutan, founder of Scaled Composites, which engineered the spacecraft, in a statement.
Virgin Galactic, founded by British billionaire Richard Branson, hopes to make its first passenger flight from the yet-to-be finished Spaceport America in New Mexico by 2011. The company said it has taken about 330 reservations for the experience.
“It comes as no surprise that the flight went so well,” Branson said in a statement. “Today was another major step along that road and a testament to U.S. engineering and innovation.”
One of Virgin's Boeing 777-300ERs. Richard Branson is shown in February at a Seattle delivery ceremony. Credit: Ted S. Warren / Associated Press
Our friends over at the travel section of the L.A. Times have just started a live interview with Virgin Group Chief Executive Richard Branson. The "Twittologue" kicked off at 8:20 a.m., and you can follow the banter live on @latimestravel and @virginamerica.
Travel blogger Jen Leo will be talking to Branson about the expansion of his Virgin America airline to Orange County, the wonders of wireless Internet on flights and the even more wondrous ambition of flying through space thanks to Virgin Galactic.
Anyone can join in on the live discussion by appending the hashtag, #vx2oc, to the end of your messages on Twitter. You can then follow that discussion through Twitter search.
Branson will also be the subject of a social media interview next week on Digg Dialogg.
Head over to Twitter now to follow the Twittologue, or you can click the "read more" link at the bottom of this post to get a live feed of the questioning. (Refresh for updates.)
More advertising plans are offering sweeteners for the unemployed. Credit: woodleywonderworks via Flickr.
As the old saying goes, nothing in life is free. Unless, apparently, you're unemployed. Today Virgin Mobile announced a "Pink Slip Protection" plan that waives up to three months of wireless phone charges if you get laid off. It follows similar layoff protection plans from car-makers Ford, General Motors and Hyundai.
"With the unemployment rate rising, the fear of job loss or salary reductions have made consumers watch every dollar," Dan Schulman, CEO of Virgin Mobile USA, said in a statement.
The tiny print about the plan: It's only for monthly plans without annual contracts; you must be employed to enroll; and you must be on a monthly plan for at least two months before claiming benefits. Virgin Mobile will pay up to $90 per month for three months. It also is offering a nationwide prepaid plan designed for heavy texters starting April 15. The plan offers unlimited text messaging for $19.99.
Virgin Mobile is offering this plan in part because unemployment issues tend to affect its prepaid base more than its wireless users, Schulman said.
Payments of $90 a month are not as significant as the hundreds of dollars a month the car companies might waive for people who get laid off, said Justin Manfredi, director of client services at Door Agency, an L.A. advertising firm. But the message Virgin is sending will resonate with consumers, said Manfredi, who has worked with the GM and Saturn brands in the past.
"It's more the idea that the company is thinking about you as a consumer and putting you first," he said.
Many companies have been taking the economy into account with their advertising messages by telling consumers they feel their pain. Hyundai was the first to give actual insurance for people who get laid off with its Assurance plan, which it launched in January. It allowed customers who got laid off within a year of purchasing the car the opportunity to return it. GM and Ford announced similar programs earlier this month -- but those carmakers will pick up an owner's payments. GM's Total Confidence plan will make as many as nine car payments of as much as $500 each for car buyers in the event they are laid off within two years. Ford Advantage will pay up to $700 a month for a year.
"Consumers are in fear of losing a job in this economy," Manfredi said. "Anything a brand or company can do to say, 'We understand what you’re going through and we’re here to help you,' is good."