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Virgin's Plane Truth

5/30/2008 08:00:00 PM Eastern

Apparently, Richard Branson can't get television in America right. When his 2004 Apprentice knockoff Rebel Billionaire found ratings bankruptcy on Fox, you figured Branson couldn't do any worse with TV.

That was until Virgin America Airlines.

Much like he boasted about his ill-fated reality show prior to its launch and quick demise, Branson has now been carrying on about his new airline, which is set to revolutionize the air travel experience thanks in part to an in-seat entertainment system that includes 24 channels of live satellite television.

There's only one problem: much like Rebel Billionaire, this doesn't work either. I've now flown it four times, and the TV system has performed like Yankees slugger Alex Rodriguez in a playoff game: zero-for-four.

For those of us who have to travel for business even periodically, the halcyon days of frequent flyers being treated like royalty are long gone. So I divorced the airline I was married to and started flying Jet Blue for one simple reason: The in-seat DirecTV helps with my second-grade-level attention span.

Cross-country jaunts go a lot better when you time the trip to catch a ballgame on ESPN and a nice What Not To Wear marathon over on A&E. Because the same people would definitely be flipping back and forth between those two.

I love the original Virgin Atlantic, so when I heard that the new American version had Dish Network, I decided to give it a shot. I looked online last October and saw its entertainment system had Fox, and booked a trip at a time I could watch a World Series game to pass the L.A. to New York flight.

Didn't happen. The system was a clunker. I got exactly three channels for most of the trip.

So back to Jet Blue I went. But this past February, that airline apparently forced some poor passenger to sit in the bathroom for most of a cross-country flight. If I want to be treated like that, I could just spend an afternoon with the wife.

So seven months after my first try, I decided to give Virgin a few more chances. Figuring they must have worked out the kinks and knowing that ESPN2 was definitely one of their live channels, I rolled the dice and scheduled a recent afternoon flight during the telecast of the European Champions League soccer final. In simple terms, that's the Super Bowl for soccer teams for all of Europe, a big deal for a futbol zealot like myself.

I settled into my seat and fired up the old system just before kickoff. I was greeted with a nice big error message that might as well have read: “Sucker.” I didn't plug in my earphones, but I'd bet there would have been a clown voice laughing at me. Or Branson's voice.

The system actually did kick in about halfway through the game, and then proceeded to crash three more times over the next 45 minutes. Only my aversion to incarceration kept my inner hooligan from using my foot to let the screen know exactly what I thought of the situation.

So why did I keep coming back? For one thing, Virgin does have in-seat power, meaning you can work on your laptop the entire flight. And that actually functions as advertised.

An airline rep told me they are trying to get things worked out and that reliability numbers are actually up. Obviously I can't vouch for that so I'll have to trust them there.

Everyone is talking about how you can watch television virtually anywhere you want these days. Apparently I have found the one place that is not the case: Virgin America.

So I'm probably going back to Jet Blue from now on. You may have to sit in the toilet for half the flight, but at least you can watch someone's live TV screen if you keep the door open wide enough.

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