Experience The Skies covered Virgin America earlier in multi-part series (refer to the first part of the series here). One of the best features of this airline based out of San Francisco International Airport (SFO) is its RED (TM) inflight entertainment system and being the first in the region to offer fleet wide internet connectivity on board its Airbus A319 and A320 aircrafts. Today, Virgin America announced a partnership with ViaSat Inc. to introduce a new generation of WiFi connectivity that will greatly enhance passenger experience.
Many airlines currently offer internet access to passengers in most network domestic US via Gogo or ViaSat. However, one of the biggest problem faced by passengers is slow speed caused by a lack of area coverage and bandwidth constraints. As such, current setups may not allowed for sustainable internet streaming on the entire flight.
Using ViaSat-1 as part of the satellite based technology solution, the company hopes to deliver stable internet speeds that could be upwards to ten times faster at peak speed than other WiFi system currently available. Technically, this will allow passengers to access internet speed closer to what they experience at home.
By deploying ViaSat’s new hybrid Ku/Ka-band antenna Virgin America will ensure area coverage would be maintained across its entire network (including Hawaii by 2016).
“The idea behind our in-flight entertainment and connectivity offerings has always been to offer travellers more content, more interactivity and more of the choices they have access to on the ground,” said Ken Bieler, Director of Product Design and Innovation at Virgin America. “Since 2009, our guests have come to rely on and expect WiFi access on every flight, and we’ve continued to improve our WiFi product offering over the years. Bringing ViaSat’s satellite-based WiFi product to our new delivery aircraft will again allow us to make an industry-leading investment in our product. We are excited about this new technology and the possibility it opens up for WiFi coverage on our new Hawaii flights and for travellers who wish to stream video in-flight.”
Virgin America will begin installation of ViaSat’s systems immediately – with the first Ka-band antenna equipped aircraft to take flight in the continental U.S. in September 2015. Aircraft scheduled for Hawaii flights will be outfitted with ViaSat’s hybrid Ku/Ka-band antenna in early 2016. During the beta period rollout of the ViaSat product, Virgin America will offer free WiFi access on its first ViaSat equipped aircraft. The airline will introduce pricing for the service in 2016.
Note that other Virgin America aircrafts have gone through an upgrade to Gogo ATG-4 in 2014. There are no immediate plans to retrofit these aircrafts to the new standard.
Connectivity continues to play a more important role in the passenger experience. Leisure passengers would like to gain access to streaming contents from their own accounts in Netflix and business passengers require a reliable internet experience to conduct their work.
Many would like less costly options like ones offered by discount airline Norwegian or Emirates (refer to our coverage of the UAE’s airline’s internet plans).
Virgin America is building a new competitive advantage by being one of the first to implement ViaSat’s solution in 2015/2016. Testing and approvals would be required before the service can be introduced. Claimed speeds are often at the maximum end of the spectrum. It would be interesting to review the speeds when the first aircrafts are delivered. Expect Virgin America to place aircrafts with better internet capability in high yield routes like New York JFK Airport (JFK) to San Francisco International Airport (SFO) and Los Angeles International Airport (LAX).
There are still many unanswered questions with newer internet technology being introduced in the next 5 years. Some of which include:
1. Tier based pricing options – hotels are introducing normal and premium based internet options so that travellers can enjoy access based on their needs using a different pricing scheme (e.g. instead of time based, use speed as a base). Can this be introduced to airlines through throttling controls?
2. Zone based management – can airlines work with providers to section off zones within the aircraft for free access? For example, airlines might want to provide free internet capability for all first class passengers without them having to type in an access code.
3. With an increase bandwidth allocation, can traditional streaming service like Netflix be accessible? If technology is available, there may be a business case for airlines to form partnerships with streaming services.
Virgin America continues to be a market leader in introducing new technology. It will be exciting to review whether their partnership with ViaSat will enhance passengers’ connectivity experience.