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Virgin Australia will launch its new in-flight entertainment system in mid-2012, using wireless networking to beam movies and music to each passenger’s smartphone, tablet or laptop – with Internet access to follow.
The airline will use Lufthansa’s BoardConnect technology to roll out the service on most domestic flights, beginning with a trial installation on a single Boeing 737-800 in the middle of next year.
“We’ll have an evaluation period but we’re hoping that wont be very long, then we’ll be rolling them out as quickly as we can” says Martin Daley, Virgin Australia Group Executive for Product and Guest Services.
Daley told Australian Business Traveller that Virgin Australia’s growing fleet of 737-800s would be first on the list. Older aircraft featuring the small seat-back screens and ‘LiveTV’ system won’t be upgraded and will be phased out of the fleet.
No decision has been made on if the system will be added to the Airbus A330s which currently ply the coast-to-coast route between Sydney and Perth.
Nor are Virgin Australia’s international fleet of 777s on the list because “they already have an in-flight entertainment system” Daley says. “Aircraft which don’t have entertainment is the priority.”
In-flight movies, TV shows and music will be available free to all passengers provided they bring their own wireless-equipped smartphone, tablet or laptop.
Tablets for rent
Each aircraft will also have a limited number of tablets on board, which will be handed out free of charge to business class passengers and available for rent at an undisclosed price to those in economy.
But Daley expects most travellers to be toting their own tech, especially in business class, instead of relying on Virgin’s rent-a-slate scheme.
“Personal devices are becoming more and more prevalent, smartphones are almost ubiquitous and one day everyone’s going to have a tablet, especially as costs keep coming down” Daly enthuses.
It was this popularity which quickly ruled conventional in-seat video screens out of the race.
“We did look at normal systems but they’re heavy, they’re costly, they take time to install and fix” Daley says. “As we looked at wireless distribution, especially with the Lufthansa system, we came to the conclusion that this was the future.”
Up next: Internet
And part of that future, Daley says, will be in-flight Internet, beamed via satellite to each aircraft.
“We’re having discussions around how we can integrate the Lufthansa system with the Swift broadband satellite (built into) our Boeing 737-800s” Daley admits.
“We’ve had the team go to Frankfurt several times, they’re out there again now, looking at the product and working with them.”
The satellite’s limited and costly bandwidth would however restrict travellers to relatively basic tasks – “email, social networking updates, some web browsing capacity like news sites.”
“There’s real potential for this, (but) it’s something we will announce when we feel more comfortable with the timeframe.”
How it will work...
The Virgin Australia system – which doesn’t yet have a fancy name like the ‘Red’ of sibling Virgin America, but according to Daley “that’s something we are talking to our marketing team about” – will be designed to serve video to all 176 passengers on the new 737-800s.
“Our intent on Day 1 is that everyone on board can use this” Daley says.
So while Virgin America uses three wireless access points on each plane “we may increase to four to have extra capacity”.
All content is stored on a special server designed by Lufthansa fitted with solid-state disks (similar to those used in the latest thin & light ‘ultrabook’ laptops) rather than spinning mechanical disk drives.
Passengers access the system by connecting to one of the plane’s wifi hotspots through a web browser, then choose their content through an on-screen menu.
The programming will be 'on-demand', so that travellers can start, stop, rewind, fast forward and pause content.
In addition to the usual movies, TV shows and music Virgin says there will be a range of games "for adults and children" including arcade style games in future releases.
Daley says that being able to browse the selection of in-flight food and drink, order from your seat and pay via credit card – all on your tablet – is also “on the roadmap”.
“Our teams are discussing ‘buy on board’ capability with Lufthansa, so guests can also pay for hotels or car hire” Daley says. Future updates to the system will also add destination information and airport guides.
Here's a video from Lufthansa to showcase all that BoardConnect can do.
Working with Virgin America
Lufthansa's BoardConnect is the same system chosen by Virgin America for the next generation of its Red in-flight entertainment system (below), set to launch in late 2012.
Daley says that Virgin Australia has already had teams visit Virgin America “to talk to our colleagues there and look at what they’re doing.”
Virgin America’s version of BoardConnect beam programming to personal devices via WiFi but also includes HD seat-back video displays, live satellite TV and an instant messaging service that allows passengers to chat to each other without leaving their seats.
Qantas also testing in-flight streaming and Internet
2012 is clearly going to be The Year of Streaming WiFi for Aussie airlines, as Qantas trialling similar services on its domestic and international flights.
In mid-January, Qantas will begin a six-week trial of its new 'Q Streaming' system for beaming content via Wi-Fi onto Apple iPads.
This also uses Lufthansa Systems' BoardConnect platform, and will be limited to a single Boeing 767-300 which will be scheduled across a variety of routes, from Sydney-Melbourne to transcontinental coast-to-coast services. [Read our full report here]
From February, Qantas will roll out in-flight Internet on selected Airbus A380s flying from Sydney and Melbourne to Los Angeles.
Passengers will be able to connect their smartphone, tablet or notebook to the A380's internal wireless network, with signals beamed through Inmarsat’s SwiftBroadband satellite system.
A Qantas spokesperson told Australian Business Traveller that for the first few weeks of the trial – when access will be limited to passengers in the First and Business cabins – the service will be offered free of charge, before introducing a range of pay-to-surf packages to test uptake. [Read our full report here]