Virgin Australia plans to relaunch inflight WiFi by December, with the airline promising the high-speed service will be free for business class passengers, Velocity Platinum frequent flyers and members of the invitation-only Beyond VIP program.
Everyone else will have to pay a “nominal fee”, although the airline isn’t yet ready to reveal how much that will cost.
Virgin flights have been without WiFi since April 2020, when the airline collapsed into administration before being bought by Bain Capital, but airline execs including CEO Jayne Hrdlicka, have always maintained the return of WiFi was a matter of ‘when’ rather than ‘if’. And when appears be finally be at hand.
Virgin says the new high-speed satellite service, powered by Intelsat – which acquired previous tech provider Gogo in 2020 – “will gradually be installed” on the majority of the airline’s Boeing 737 fleet “over the next 18 months, starting before the Christmas holiday break,” with the service switched on “between Christmas holidays and mid-2023.”
Translation: some Virgin Australia 737s may let travellers remain connected above the clouds during the December-January holidays or even the months following but don’t expect to see WiFi available on almost every Virgin flight until early 2024, making inflight Internet a bit of a ‘lucky dip’ in the interim.
Virgin Australia’s Chief Customer and Digital Officer Paul Jones says travellers overwhelmingly “told us that WiFi was important to them, and so we're really pleased to be bringing it back. Our guests value choice and having in-flight WiFi will give them more flexibility on how they spend their time onboard.”
Virgin announced its inflight Internet plans alongside a Velocity status match aimed at Qantas Gold and Platinum frequent flyers, although the promotion is also open to top-tier members of other airlines.
While Virgin Australia has kept flyers disconnected above the clouds, Qantas continues to offer fast and free WiFi on almost all domestic flights, and challenger Regional Express has activated WiFi on its own Boeing 737 jets.
Virgin first launched WiFi on domestic flights in early 2017, at almost the same time as Qantas, with a combination of free and paid access.
The basic WiFi connection was earmarked as “suitable for lightweight Web browsing, email and social media at around 1Mbps”, the airline said at the time, although many travellers noted free speeds in the vicinity of 10Mbps.
For $12, passengers could reserve a fast connection for what the airline described as “higher-bandwidth applications such as video streaming and downloading large files or attachments.”
Speaking with Executive Traveller in mid-2021, Virgin chief Hrdlicka stressed “WiFi is on the cards (but) the WiFi product that we had before, we didn’t think was serving our guests as well as it might.”
One option said to be considered during Virgin’s rethink of WiFi was dialling back the free service to cover only messaging apps – such asiMessage, WeChat, WhatsApp and Facebook Messenger – in line with several overseas carriers.
However, some form of a paid service was always on the cards, given Virgin’s mid-market ‘value’ positioning of giving passengers the basics to keep fares down, and letting them pay for extras they want – an approach which has seen inflight snacks and drinks replaced by a ‘buy on board’ menu, as well as an Economy Lite fare without checked baggage.
If passengers don’t want WiFi, the argument went, it shouldn’t be added to the bottom line and priced into their fare.
“Passengers don’t want to pay more than they have to so our strategy is to basically keep our costs as low as they possibly can be and provide those extra things that really matter to people in a cost-efficient way,” elaborates Hrdlicka, speaking at a CAPA Centre for Aviation conference in Adelaide this week.
“There’s a big chunk of the market that cares about how they’re treated while they fly, there’s a big chunk of the market that cares that there’s a frequent flyer program, but they don’t want to pay more than they have to.”