From a standing start in April this year, Qantas and Virgin Australia are now racing to make inflight Internet the latest weapon in their fight for the hearts and wallets of business travellers.
Think on this: just 10 months ago, any Qantas or Virgin Australia flight had as much Internet access as an outback humpy.
But today, you can stream Netflix in high-definition on around 20 Boeing 737s (most of those belonging to Qantas).
By the end of December you can look forward to free WiFi on two of Virgin Australia's five Boeing 777 jets darting from Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane to Los Angeles and back.
And by this time next year you’ll be able to jump online on almost every domestic Qantas and Virgin Australia flight, as well as on all Virgin’s flights to New Zealand and the USA.
Here's the exclusive Australian Business Traveller rundown of Qantas and Virgin Australia’s inflight Internet plans.
Qantas is well ahead on the rollout of WiFi-equiped Boeing 737s, with 17 of the red-tailed jets already upgraded compared to just three from the Virgin Australia fleet.
This makes it far more likely that you can step onto a Qantas flight and find a hotspot waiting for your laptop, tablet or smartphone.
But that yawning gap will narrow through to the end of 2018, with Qantas’ entire 80-strong Boeing 737 fleet and most of Virgin’s Boeing 737s kitted out by Christmas.
"We'll be fitting one Boeing 737 aircraft (with WiFi) every eight days until the end of March 2018, and after that one aircraft will be completed every four days," a Virgin Australia spokesperson tells Australian Business Traveller.
"The majority of our Boeing 737 aircraft are expected to be completed by the end of 2018, with only a handful to be completed in January 2019."
As for its regional QantasLink fleet such as the Boeing 717, Fokker 100 and Bombardier Dash 8, a Qantas spokesperson says the airline is "in talks with suppliers for inflight connectivity options across the Qantas Group, but the priority right now is the Qantas domestic rollout."
"With regional flights, one challenge is the weight of the equipment, which is more of an issue on smaller aircraft compared with jets like the Airbus A330 and Boeing 737."
Qantas takes the A330 advantage
If you make a lot of east-west flights on the Qantas or Virgin Australia Airbus A330s with their international-grade business class seats, the Flying Kangaroo will be the best way to hop online during that 4-5 hour trek.
Qantas will begin adding WiFi to its domestic A330s from early next year, with the entire fleet upgraded by the end by the end of 2018.
Those jets, like their Boeing 737 siblings, will sport 'second-gen technology' with Qantas says "will enable faster speeds and increased reliability" compared to the initial Boeing 737 trial.
(Both the Qantas and Virgin Australia WiFi systems are already clocking 10-15Mbps per passenger, which is as fast as most home broadband connections.)
However, despite having a much smaller Airbus A330 fleet, Virgin doesn’t plan to start its own A330 overhaul until late 2018, with most of the six jets getting WiFi across 2019 and some stragglers in 2020.
It's unknown how many of Virgin's A330s will be flying in Australian skies by then, as the airline has earmarked the twin-aisle jets for its push into Asia – although Boeing 737s fitted with the airline's new east-west business class will let travellers stay connected from coast to coast.
The cost of staying connected
While Qantas will rely on its deep pockets to keep inflight Internet access free of charge, Virgin Australia has opted for a two-tier pricing model which will kick in at the start of the new year.
"The free access on domestic flights will remain until 31 December 2017" the airline says.
From 1 January 2018 passengers will enjoy a ‘standard’ connection for free, with the option to pay for a 'high-speed' service.
Virgin hasn't revealed how much faster the paid service will be – or if this might see free connections wound back to more modest but still usable speeds – and is tipped to release its premium WiFi details later this week.
Virgin's international push
Virgin Australia hopes to gain the upper hand against Qantas when it comes to international flights.
Qantas isn’t expected to add WiFi to its international flights until 2019 at the earliest – even its factory-fresh Boeing 787 Dreamliners are being delivered without the necessary satellite kit.
“We are focusing on the domestic WiFi roll out right now,” a Qantas spokesperson tells Australian Business Traveller.
“With international flights, we need a product that can overcome a number of technical, performance and coverage challenges.”
Barring any hardware hiccups, two of Virgin’s five Boeing 777-300ER jets will offer Internet on flights between Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane and Los Angels by the end of December – initially in a free ‘public trial’ mode – with all five aircraft upgraded by May 2018.
The first Boeing 777 has already been fitted with the necessary hardware to tap into the Intelsat and SES Ku-band satellites used by partner Gogo to ensure coverage for the duration of the Australia-USA flights, with the second bird currently in getting its own high-tech upgrade in a hangar in Singapore.
WiFi will also be available on Virgin's Boeing 737 flights to and from New Zealand, along with Fiji and Bali, starting from early next year.
Virgin says that "just under half of our (Virgin Australia International) aircraft will be completed before the end of March 2018. The remaining VAI aircraft will be complete before the end of September 2018."
The airline will reveal the pricing options for its international WiFi service in the middle of December.