Ten years ago, outspoken British entrepreneur Richard Branson decided to enter the U.S. airline industry. It was clear from the beginning that Branson had big plans to disrupt the top U.S. airlines with an innovative take on air travel. After all, that's exactly what he had done two decades earlier with Virgin Atlantic.
Despite its small size, Virgin America has revolutionized the U.S. airline industry in the seven years since its first flight. It pioneered a variety of amenities that now seem common to U.S. air travelers. Its entry to the U.S. airline industry has thus had a positive impact even for travelers who have never flown Virgin America.
A history of innovation
Branson first jumped into the airline business in the mid-1980s. Within a decade, Virgin Atlantic was a major player on several key international routes out of London, thanks to Branson's focus on pleasing his customers.
Virgin Atlantic introduced new amenities (particularly for premium travelers) while charging comparatively low fares. These included a stand-up bar for first-class passengers, personal TV screens, and premium economy seating for travelers wanting a little more space at a reasonable price.
Setting new standards: luxury seats
Virgin America has also redefined what it means to be a full-service airline operating in the U.S. For example, all of its planes feature an eight-seat first-class cabin, with seats outfitted in plush white leather and 55 inches between rows.
This was a huge upgrade from the uncomfortable seats that were standard in legacy carriers' premium cabins just a few years ago. In response, all three legacy carriers -- as well as JetBlue Airways -- have recently upgraded to full flat-bed seats in business class on their routes from New York to Los Angeles and San Francisco, where Virgin America is a key competitor.
Wi-Fi in the air
Today, most airlines in the U.S. offer in-flight Wi-Fi or are quickly rolling it out. This is also a Virgin America innovation. In May 2009, Branson's company announced that it had become the only airline with Wi-Fi available on every flight.
At that time, the only other U.S. airlines aggressively investing in Wi-Fi were AirTran and Delta Air Lines. As of last year -- four full years after Virgin America completed its Wi-Fi rollout -- only 38% of U.S. domestic flights had the service available, though that figure is rising quickly.
Unfortunately, having Wi-Fi available for your six-hour cross-country trip isn't that useful if your laptop battery dies halfway through the flight. That's why Virgin America has had in-seat power outlets on every plane from day one.
Other airlines are gradually hopping on board -- but the key word there is "gradually." Most legacy carriers now have power outlets available in their first class and business cabins on at least some of their planes. A few airlines are beginning to roll out in-seat power for economy class passengers, too. But Virgin America remains the market leader by a long shot.
A safety video people will watch
Most recently, Virgin America has redefined the airline safety video. Most fliers barely pay attention to the standard safety announcements at the beginning of each flight. Virgin America's safety video sets out to change that by incorporating music and dance. It's been so successful that nearly 10 million people have (voluntarily) viewed it on YouTube!
Not surprisingly, other airlines are again following quickly in Virgin America's footsteps. For example, United Airlines updated its safety video this summer. The new video features exotic locations and lots of humor. A variety of other airlines are also moving toward the concept of safety video-as-entertainment.
Foolish final thoughts
Virgin America remains a niche player within the gigantic U.S. airline industry. While each of the legacy carriers has annual revenue of about $40 billion, Virgin America's revenue totaled just $1.4 billion last year.
However, in terms of industry impact, Virgin America punches well above its weight. It has a large presence on several key routes -- particularly the New York-Los Angeles-San Francisco triangle -- and this has forced other airlines to copy some of its innovations.
As a result, air travelers who have never flown Virgin America are still benefiting from its existence. Virgin America has accomplished a lot in the seven years since its first flight. U.S. air travelers can only hope that it continues on its trendsetting path in the coming years and decades.
Adam Levine-Weinberg owns shares of JetBlue Airways and is short shares of United Continental Holdings. The Motley Fool has no position in any of the stocks mentioned. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.