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Entertainment taking flight on Virgin

Low-fare airline offers friendly skies to Industry

The skies just got a lot friendlier for Hollywood.

The launch of Richard Branson’s low-fare airline Virgin America this week gives industryites a cheaper but still frill-filled option for flying to Gotham. But the carrier is also guaranteed to offer studio and TV marketing mavens a lucrative outlet to push their products.

At the very least, Virgin’s 10 Airbus jets have turned into a new revenue generator for distributors.

That’s because Virgin America cabins feature Red, an interactive in-flight entertainment system that offers a library of movies, TV shows, music, musicvids and videogames in addition to Dish satellite TV and typically quirky Virgin extras such as the ability to instant message fellow passengers.

Virgin’s created a venue in which hundreds of passengers are glued to their screens.

Getting passengers to pony up the dough to watch the on-demand programming will be one hurdle to overcome. Half the passengers on an early morning flight from San Francisco to Los Angeles had their screened tuned to CNN; the Weather Channel has long been one of the most-watched on JetBlue.

Airline charges $8 per pic — a somewhat steep price to watch “Spider-Man 3,” “Shrek the Third,” “Zodiac,” “28 Weeks Later,” “Disturbia” or “300” on a nine-inch screen. At least the pics are unedited.

TV shows like “The Office,” “The Simpsons,” “Prison Break,” “Jericho,” “Bones,” “How I Met Your Mother” — even “Twin Peaks” — cost $1.99 per episode.

Available for free is a library of 3,000 music tracks, radio stations and vidgames, including violent shooter “Doom” and the plane-unfriendly “Mad Bomber.”

But the system’s main attraction for marketers will be its flexibility.

Red, named after the Virgin-brand’s color of choice, has already made room for upcoming offerings such as digital books, email and shopping.

Its instant messaging service became an instant hit on Virgin’s first flight from Los Angeles, with celeb passenger Haylie Duff spending much of the flight texting her entourage of friends, who were sitting just across the aisle, or random strangers on board.

But it’s the video in which marketing execs at studios and TV networks will be most interested.

With more programming being added as the fledgling airline grows up, there’s no reason why marketers couldn’t broker deals with Virgin to showcase the first 10 minutes of a new pic, for example, or offer a free screening of a new series pilot. Studios are pushing similar fare on the Internet and during pre-shows in theaters.

Red’s already being used to showcase pics that didn’t get theatrical releases, like those that were part of the Campus Movie Fest. It also has foreign-language releases. TV section featured programs from Japan and Latin America.

The airline’s heavy reliance on entertainment is a way to stand out among its low-fare rivals.

JetBlue features only DirecTV on its planes; Southwest doesn’t have seatback screens at all. So Virgin America packed its planes with as much programming as it could. If it can be watched or listened to, it’s available via screens embedded in a glossy white iPod-like plastic casing that covers the backs of the planes’ black leather seats.

And if it isn’t, Virgin’s made sure passengers have access to it: Also built into the seats are power outlets and USB ports for laptop computers or other devices.

But Virgin needs to make sure its screens remain in working condition. Technical glitches during Virgin’s inaugural flights from Los Angeles and New York crashed several screens, including one being used by a journalist from Wired magazine. Not good.

Elsewhere, Virgin’s already made sure it seems entertainment-friendly.

Carrier’s first flight from New York to San Francisco on Wednesday was named Air Colbert, after Comedy Central’s Stephen Colbert (the “Colbert Report” host was to christen the airline but ended up missing the flight due to rain). Company’s launch party also featured studio reps and celebs like Duff, Rachel Hunter and “America’s Next Top Model” winner CariDee English.

The entertainment strategy could ultimately pay off big for Virgin. It’s worked for other airlines.

Delta Air Lines has recently been relying on its revamped in-flight entertainment system to help revitalize the company, emphasizing these features in its latest ad campaigns. Delta even opened a lodge for parties and other events at the Sundance Film Festival in January. So far, sales are up.

Virgin’s launch couldn’t come at a better time for the biz, as studios and talent agencies make moves to trim overhead. That, of course, includes travel.

Round-trip tickets from L.A. to New York will cost $298 before taxes and fees, when two daily flights on the route launch Aug. 29, and a third is added Sept. 16. Company boasts a first-class section as well, with a round trip to Gotham costing $898 before taxes and fees. Cheap flights to Las Vegas, Boston and Washington, D.C., will soon follow.

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