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Virgin America hits the skies

Inflight entertainment review

Hollywood has a new way to fly as Virgin America takes to the skies. The airline’s two inaugural flights from New York and Los Angeles to San Francisco on Aug. 8 proved that Richard Branson’s lofty goals of beating Southwest and JetBlue at their low-fare game should pay off with boffo results. Carrier’s prices will be the big draw, but company’s entertainment offerings inside its mood-lit cabins is the perk that will help it stand out most.

Virgin America is already generating buzz for its fares (round-trip from L.A. to New York costs $298 before taxes, with first-class running at $898). Cheap flights to Las Vegas and Boston will soon follow.

But Virgin’s star is its onboard in-flight entertainment system, dubbed Red (the company’s color of choice).

Nine-inch touch-screens offer movies, TV shows, 18 channels of Dish satellite TV, games, musicvids and a vast library of music.

This being Virgin, the carrier has come up with quirky extras, such as allowing passengers to instant-message each other. Vidgames include the violent shooter “Doom” and “Mad Bomber” (something other airlines would shun, given the name). Food can also be ordered using the touch-screens embedded in the black leather seats whose backs are encased in an iPod-like glossy plastic.

For those toting their own entertainment, seats include power outlets and USB ports.

Instant-messaging service seems novel and a must-use function at first. Typing on a pull-out remote control is pretty similar to handling a BlackBerry. But practice quickly loses its appeal. Naturally, that might all depend on whom you’re chatting with.

One downside: The perks aren’t free. Movies cost $8, and TV shows run $1.99 an episode. Sending messages to total strangers, however: priceless.

Still, pic prices are steep, approaching what one might pay at the multiplex with a far larger screen. Movies included “Spider-Man 3,” “Shrek 3,” “Waitress,” “Zodiac” and “300.” Virgin’s fare was unedited, as opposed to that on other airlines, which cut out “objectionable” material.

TV offerings included “30 Rock,” “The Office,” “Prison Break,” “Jericho,” “The Simpsons” and “Twin Peaks.”

Airline still has some bugs to work out. Software glitches caused some video screens to crash, but flight attendants are able to reboot them, if needed. Most of the time.

Playing the vidgames also proved frustrating using the controller, with onscreen action becoming jittery or not intuitive with what buttons were pressed.

Those are small quibbles, though.

As new features like digital books, email and shopping are added, Virgin’s sure to have the way to distract any passenger stuck in a metal tube for hours on end.

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