Virgin America’s Wireless Inflight Entertainment Isn’t Quite What You Might Think

Last week at the APEX expo, Virgin America announced plans for its next generation inflight entertainment system. Wait, doesn’t Virgin America already have one of the best systems around? Why would the airline be doing this? It just posted yet another quarterly loss (no surprise) so why is it messing around with introducing a new inflight entertainment system?

Virgin America's New Red screen

Actually, this one should bring costs down while even improving the experience for passengers. Anything that helps the airline bring its costs down is good, and since it’s good for the passenger experience, that makes it even better.

The buzz about the new system is that it’s wireless. That was the big buzz word this year at the APEX expo in general, but this probably isn’t what you think. The airline isn’t ditching seatback entertainment but instead is just changing the way that content gets to the seats.

The system that Virgin America uses now requires a lot of wiring throughout the airplane. The content comes through the wires from a “head end” system through the airplane until it gets to each seat. The systems are pretty expensive, especially when they’re from one of the existing titans of IFE, Panasonic, as is the case with Virgin America.

This new system from Lufthansa Systems will see content come from the same place, but that’s where things change. From there, the content will be wirelessly transmitted to each seat.

So when you get on the airplane, you’ll still see a monitor in each seatback as you do today, but the content will get there in a different way. You shouldn’t care if you just want to watch a movie.

Remember, this isn’t like streaming video from the internet. It’s still content stored on the airplane, but it’s just sent wirelessly. So transmission speeds and quality shouldn’t be an issue. Each access point should support about 60 devices (but could do more), and each Virgin America aircraft will have 3 access points.

But here’s where it gets cool. The content that you see on the screen is now super flexible. Would you rather watch TV on your own device? Go for it. The movies, TV, etc can all be watched on any device, not just the seatback. Want to watch on your mobile phone? Sure. It doesn’t matter. The only restriction is that if you use your own device, you can’t see the newest movies.

The movie industry has what it calls “early release” content, which is really just movies that aren’t on DVD yet. This is offered for airplanes but not if you use your personal device. The studios are afraid you’ll steal it. Eventually they’ll hopefully get over that, but until then, that should be the only difference.

Likewise, the system will also work with the internet that Virgin America currently has through Gogo. That system is getting a big upgrade as well with Gogo’s new ATG-4 system.

This new system will help Gogo deal with speed issues. That means adding directional antennas that will not just look for the closest tower but also at ones further away that might have more bandwidth available. And in those ground towers which transmit the signal, there will be an upgrade to EV-DO Rev. B technology, which will help speed things up. Lastly, there will be two modems instead of one on the airplane. The upshot is four times more capacity on the airplane than what’s there today.

But this does bring up a question. If Virgin America is sticking with Gogo for internet, then why not use Gogo Vision to stream content instead of going with the competitor Lufthansa Systems? The answer to me seems simple. Gogo Vision doesn’t have a seatback solution – it’s just streaming media and it seems Virgin America wanted more.

The only downer about all this? It’s a LONG way off. The first install isn’t until the end of 2012. Virgin America decided to talk about it because testing of equipment has begun, so the airline knew someone would find out. New deliveries starting late next year will get the system. Current aircraft will be evaluated on a case by case basis to see if they’ll bother to configure with the new system or stick with what they have today.

Virgin America continues to show that it can innovate with the onboard product. Now, if only the airline could just find a way to make money. . .

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