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google glass virgin atlanticThe travel industry doesn’t tend to win many kudos for its customer service (see our Airlines Behaving Badly series for evidence), but one airline is hoping to change that through the introduction of cutting-edge technology.

Virgin Atlantic announced yesterday that staff members in its Upper Class Wing at London‘s Heathrow Airport will be using Google Glass — a wearable mini-computer that’s not yet broadly available to the public — to check in passengers and perform other personalized customer service tasks. This includes things like giving flight status updates, translating information in foreign languages and providing a weather forecast for the passenger’s destination.

For now, Virgin Atlantic’s economy-class passengers are out of luck; the pilot test of this program affects only those in the Upper Class cabin. The test will go on for six weeks, with the possibility of expansion in the future. Eventually the technology could also be used to identify passengers’ inflight preferences (such as special dietary needs or preferred drinks).

Does Your Flight Attendant Hate You?

Would you find it appealing to be greeted with such personalized service at the airport? Let us know in the comments below.

— written by Sarah Schlichter

virgin atlantic recording studio london heathrowIt can be tough to escape the drudgery of an airport layover, especially for seasoned travelers who’ve seen and done nearly everything imaginable. Sure, you can hop a train or take a taxi to the city center for a little sightseeing (time permitting, of course). But honestly, sometimes that’s just too much effort after an eight-hour flight. Do we really have to resign ourselves to spending hours in a rock-hard chair listening to the same songs on our iPods over and over again?

Virgin Atlantic doesn’t think so. The airline, which is known for its less than traditional approach to flight service, recently installed an industry-standard recording studio in its Clubhouse lounge (open to Upper Class passengers and Flying Club Gold members) at London Heathrow. Musically inclined passengers can record, edit and mix a tune before e-mailing or uploading it to record companies, broadcasters, producers, etc., all while waiting for a flight.

Top 5 Airlines for In-Flight Entertainment

After hearing about this out-of-the-box service, we couldn’t help daydreaming about other swanky amenities that could make an hours-long layover more pleasurable than painful. As we noted in Best Airports for Layovers, there are already some pretty neat options out there.

At Hong Kong’s International Airport, for example, passengers can step outside to play a few rounds of golf at the USGA-approved nine-hole Sky City Nine Eagles Golf Course. Travelers at Singapore’s Changi International Airport can also soak up some vitamin D before boarding as they stroll the airport’s five themed botanical gardens, which are home to a variety of flora as well as more than 1,000 live butterflies. At Amsterdam’s Schiphol Airport, travelers can brush up on Dutch culture at the Airport Library, which features about 1,250 books, including Dutch fiction that has been translated into 30 languages. And in Zurich, the airport rents bicycles, inline skates and Nordic walking poles so passengers can explore the surrounding areas while they wait.

What Not to Wear on a Plane

With airports like these setting a precedent for innovation, we can’t help but hope that one day they’ll all be the standard rather than the exception. And while they’re working on it, maybe they could think about featuring dine-in movie theaters, bowling alleys, cooking classes and or even roller coasters.

Which amenities would you add to our airport wish list?

— written by Shayne Rodriguez Thompson

cell phone plane flightSay it ain’t so, Virgin Atlantic.

Comes word this morning that Virgin Atlantic has become the first British airline to allow in-flight cell phone calls. The AeroMobile service — which debuted Tuesday on Virgin’s New York to London service — is available on the airline’s A330-300’s to fliers who get their phone service through O2, Vodaphone and T-Mobile.

According to ABC News, the airline said this likely annoyance is “intended for use in exceptional situations, when passengers need to send a [text], make a quick call or access an e-mail on a Blackberry.” Due to bandwidth issues, only six passengers can use their phones at one time, though it’s unclear who or what will regulate who the lucky six are.

Top Five Airlines for In-Flight Entertainment

The airline isn’t charging extra for the service, though the Associated Press notes that callers will be subjected to the usual jaw-dropping roaming rates. Virgin joins a tiny minority of carriers that allow cell phone usage, including Dubai-based Emirates (the first carrier to break the barrier in 2008), Oman Air and Royal Jordanian. (The service is not yet available on any U.S. airlines, as the Federal Aviation Administration does not allow cell phones to be used in flight unless they’re in “airplane mode,” which allows fliers to play games but not make calls or send texts.)

I know what you’re thinking, so let’s let George Hobica, president of Airfarewatchdog.com, say what’s on your mind. As he told ABC: “The airline cabin is the last refuge for those who wish to be out of earshot of someone yelling into a mobile phone, so I imagine that many passengers are not going to welcome this. I can just imagine sitting next to someone gabbing about nothing at the top of his or her lungs for hours on end. I predict a number of mobile phones will be snatched out of hands and stomped on. Just what we need, with all the other in-flight hostilities that passengers deal with.”

Amen, George. Using phones on takeoff and landing will remain off-limits (and we’ve all seen those who’ve flouted those rules — we’re talking about you, Alec Baldwin), but once you turn on those electronic devices … watch out. I’ve got a bad feeling that this won’t be the last airline to allow in-flight calls, so it’s not hard to imagine a blabby future where passengers from every angle are catching up with family and friends at 32,000 feet.

What do you think? Is allowing in-flight cell phone usage a godsend or an unimaginable evil?

— written by John Deiner

Editor’s Note: IndependentTraveler.com is published by The Independent Traveler, Inc., a member of the TripAdvisor Media Network, which also owns Airfarewatchdog.com.