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

Technology, Virgin America

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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25 comments on “Virgin America’s Wireless Inflight Entertainment Isn’t Quite What You Might Think

  1. Sounds interesting and a saving if you don’t have to deal with all those wires anymore. But who would want to watch someone on the small screen of a cell phone instead of a bigger seat back phone?

    Now why isn’t Virgin America making money?

    1. The business plan from back in 2006-2007 wasn’t foreseeing $80 fuel and a recession. Even last year when fuel costs were cheaper they were doing OK, now, not so much.

      That and the dart board style of selecting stations has been problematic- they already had to fold YYZ and SNA.

      1. Well, mostly they entered markets with fierce competition (California-NYC, SEA, other hubs) and have to be competitive with fares. They have the popularity but can’t charge enough to pull a profit.

    2. Well, some people might not mind a cell phone but it’s not ideal. On the other hand, a laptop or tablet might be an even bigger screen than what the airline provides so it’s an upgrade.

      As for making money, well, I give up. Clearly today’s announcement that Palm Springs is joining the route map will help. Um, er, not.

      1. I saw the SFO PSP announcement on that one flight in each direction. That should have UA and AS running from the market…

        But at least they are trying something and it’s only seasonal, so hopefully they will fly the season as planned and not drop it after a week.

    1. my laptop would have a bigger screen, but it still all seems unwieldy. I’d rather just use the seatback screen.

      could one watch different things on seatback and on the personal device at the same time? don’t know why you’d want that, but I suppose somebody might find a reason to try it.

      1. That’s the beauty of the system. Choice. You may be happy with your seatback screen, but I’d prefer my laptop or iPad. VX is recognizing flexibility is key.

  2. IFE should definitely help to keep them ahead of the pack. I know in the last release there was an open tab function so people only swiped their card once for the whole flight, which encouraged them to spend more. Not sure if the latest developments will lead to revenue increases but it sure makes for a better passenger experience.

    I would like to see a better mix of destinations. Also, if the aircraft are sitting around at SFO or LAX overnight, might as well send them to Hawaii and have them back by the morning departures. Hopefully this will happen as new aircraft come in. In particular, if their focus is “key business markets etc..”, then I can see a lot more midcons including Houston, Austin, St. Louis and transcons like Philly, Atlanta, Charlotte, and Newark if they get slots. I don’t think DEN will happen because there’s too much competition as it is.

      1. I don’t think the 320s can make it to Hawaii at all… Besides, a round trip to/from Hawaii would take a good 10+ hours, not just an overnight. They also run redeyes and need time for maintenance.

  3. Sounds great if Virgin America is still in business by late 2012! Just kidding… I will echo others that they need to focus on adding destinations first. Not all of us are lucky enough to live in SoCal and have access to “every” airline. There’s an awful lot of people that will never fly them because they don’t fly to where they need to go. If they want to cater to business traveles (myself) they need to at least fly to the top 20-25 busiest airports in the country. That would cover most of my business travel. Same goes for other startups like JetBlue. IFE is an afterthought, first I need to get where I need to be.

    1. Nope, I didn’t get exact numbers. But some of that is fluid since it’s also a weight savings and that translates into lower fuel burn.

    2. Found a number. Lufthansa Systems says that on an A340-600 with 380 seats, it saves 900 kg which corresponds to 47 tons of fuel savings per year. That could be up to $50,000 a year or so – not huge but not bad.

      1. So that’s probably 340 kg. So somewhere like flying around a passenger or two. Not a huge amount but VX need every penny it can get. Plus I bet they got a good deal from Lufthansa.

  4. I hope they do good. I hope they have a load of money stashed somewhere. They certainly are thinking about the customers. But if they don’t pull a full year profit this year or not on track by this time next year, I’ll be surprised if they last. Routes and planes have to pull a profit and not burn fuel carrying people around with awesome seatback entertainment.

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