The 17.35 Virgin Atlantic flight from London Heathrow to Boston four days before Christmas turned out to be particularly eventful for the 243 passengers. And in a very good way.
Not only was each and every one of them handed an 8-inch quad-core Windows 8.1 tablet, they were treated to a visit by Santa Claus in several stages, first digitally through a dedicated app and then in person as he landed on the plane. Finally, he left waving goodbye through magical portholes in the ceiling.
Pocket-lint was invited to experience the seasonal tech-laden journey, which was created in partnership with Microsoft and we have to say that whether the passengers were travelling home for Christmas or on a seasonal holiday, they were in for a treat.
We were told that the two companies will collaborate on future tech initiatives for Virgin Atlantic customers. And this specific one started on the tablets provided. The two companies handed out all of the 1.33GHz quad-core Linx Windows 8.1 devices as passengers passed through the boarding gate. Every child and adult received a shiny new tablet, which retails for £100, and were told that their purpose would be revealed later in the flight.
They were all fully charged (with a charger and instructions also included in a small goody bag) and came with a suite of games pre-installed – somebody had fun preparing more than 250 of them, that's for sure.
Some of the games were based on Christmas while others were older favourites, such as Flappy Bird and Cut the Rope. However, the most important piece of the pre-installed software was the portal to a “Festive Flight” section. When connected to a dedicated slice of the in-flight Wi-Fi, the portal showed a rather special version of a Santa Tracker, one that showed the big man on his trial run.
Microsoft and Bing are supporters of the Norad Santa Tracker online, which you can use to follow Father Christmas around the world as he makes his deliveries on Christmas Eve, but this version was just for the passengers of flight VS11 to Boston as it showed the plane in relation to his preliminary travels.
Virgin Atlantic's new 787 aircraft also offers full Wi-Fi for passengers to use when travelling from the UK to the US and in many ways the whole experience detailed why being connected on a long haul journey is such a revelation. Admittedly, we were on a closed network for the festive fun, but we still shared the experience collectively over wireless connections.
Every child and adult received a shiny new tablet, which retails for £100
As we were all browsing the tracker for the first time (shortly after scoffing a full Christmas dinner) a pilot announcement blared over the 787's intercom: “This is the captain speaking,” it said. “Some exciting news, we happen to have flown around 100 nautical miles near the man of the moment himself... Santa Claus.”
Looking back at the Santa Tracker on the tablet we could see that we were indeed in “chat” range of Santa and could send him a message – something in which the whole plane, it seemed, partook with relish – if not a little spicy relish at times.
The app had a chat room where children (and, to be honest, most of the adults) could ask Father Christmas questions and even offer help. He would then respond almost immediately, making the journey all the more magical for true believers. And many, if not all the passengers thought this was the pinnacle of the Christmas themed activities. After all, they'd received a free tablet and were served Christmas dinner, surely that was enough?
Guess we're not on the naughty list then
It wasn't. Next up was a further announcement from the flight deck. Santa was incredibly close, it revealed, so close in fact that he was captured on cameras mounted on the outside of the aircraft. Hitting the “Santa Cam” section of the app revealed a couple of images, one of Santa on his sleigh just off the wing, the other a close up of Rudolph. And that was still not all.
Santa himself made an appearance – in an outfit that Richard Branson himself would have been proud off – flight goggles and all. “I like to read your stuff,” he told us as we got to meet the big guy. Guess we're not on the naughty list then.
And like that he took off again, confirming that everybody on the flight received their own, shiny new Windows 8.1 tablet as a Christmas gift, but not before one last surprise.
The Microsoft team, armed with portable, Wi-Fi-enabled Philips projectors and a relayed video loop made parts of the ceiling disappear and Santa wipe away the snow on the roof of the plane to wave goodbye to the excited kids and their parents. It was the last technical feat on a flight packed with surprises triggered by innovation.
He was gone for good this time, after all it was just the start of an incredibly busy period for Mr Claus. Virgin Atlantic and Microsoft will be hoping that it was just the start of beautiful and hopefully bountiful tech relationship too.