Exclusive: Virgin America to offer more live news, sports

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Virgin America is poised to make its super cool in-flight entertainment (IFE) system, Red, even cooler. The carrier has revealed to RWG that it will offer more live sports and news with the addition of three new network choices. It hopes to have the upgrade completed by the end of the month.

“We’re going to be offering the same number of channels but we’ll be switching some, trying to add more sports and news,” says Virgin America vice president of marketing Porter Gale.

Adds Virgin America vice president of corporate communications Abby Lunardini: “We really try to look at what our guests would want and we’ve found that people really want the live events, such as sporting events and American Idol when they’re flying so we’ve tried to add more options to get more live footage.

“If there is a big game on, and you’re flying, or The Oscars is on, people really want to be connected and be able to view that content as they fly, and that was really the objective to adding more live content.”

Offering more live content is among a number of upgrades planned for Red, which represents a collaboration between hardware giant Panasonic Avionics and software firm CoKinetic. For instance, Virgin America intends to support real-time credit card transactions via the IFE system by spring next year. Just imagine for a second what the airline might sell to passengers in flight!

However, Virgin America is dreaming very big for its next generation IFE system, which will be rolled out in the fourth quarter of 2012, and has been studying the many new IFE offerings on the market.

“It’s fair to say that we’re looking at everybody. Like everything in the technology world, there are new players that pop up and old sturdy guys that have been around forever and do things really, really well. We’ll make the best possible decision that gives us the growth path in the future and the canvas for creativity to do many amazing things,” says Virgin America director of engineering Ken Bieler.

The new IFE system will support connected apps, such as social media. “I’d imagine we’ll have Facebook and Twitter but we’re still working on everything,” says Gale. Social gaming and real-time geolocation services could also be on the menu, according to a USA Today report.

Virgin America had previously expected to offer connected apps on its current system, but decided to wait for the new system. Explaining the carrier’s decision Bieler says: “I think it’s probably just trying to make the most of what we have right now and managing bandwidth frankly.”

Virgin America was the first carrier to offer Aircell’s Gogo in-flight Internet system throughout its admittedly small fleet. “We took that innovative position and put a stake in the ground. We took a risk. We were able to do that because we were a smaller-sized fleet and it is much easier for a smaller fleet to tackle new opportunities than a large fleet,” says Gale.

“We spent a lot of money to do it. We obviously think it has been worth it. I hear a lot of people say they would rather fly with us in economy and have an empty inbox when they land versus fly first on a non-Wi-Fi plane.”

Furthermore, she says, in-flight Wi-Fi “is a revenue generator for us, a source of ancillary revenue. More importantly, we recognized that the people that were flying Virgin America were tech savvy, involved in social media, carrying iPads; they like the power outlets between the seat so their laptop doesn’t die, so that’s the type of guest who responded very well to having the Wi-Fi on the plane.”

Key quote from Gale:

“We’ve been a leader in social media, and I think a lot of it has been because we have this Wi-Fi on the plane and a captive audience. We have the perfect combination of social media, Wi-Fi and a captive audience not repeated anywhere else.

So, will Virgin America choose Aircell’s upgrade path to Ka-band-based connectivity or another provider’s solution to support its high-bandwidth needs in the future, particularly as it rolls out a new system at the end of 2012?

“We’re evaluating all of the options on the table, both those that are factual at this point and those that are somewhat ethereal, and we’re trying to plan the future. Having connectivity on the aircraft has been a phenomenal thing. As we move forward things change all the time so we’re always keeping our ears and eyes open,” says Bieler.

One solution that does not interest Virgin America at this time is wireless IFE, such as the Aircell solution that will be trialed by American Airlines this summer.  “In terms of the Aircell solution now, I don’t think it’s something on the table,” says Lunardini, noting that Virgin America is able to make its embedded IFE system distinctly ‘Virgin America’. Indeed, the system is very much part of Virgin America’s brand.

Gale adds: “A lot of the movie studios won’t give you the early release content on the wireless, and with our [embedded] system, we can get the movies much earlier.”

So will the new IFE system roll off the production line with a new Airbus A320 or will Virgin America start by retrofitting one of its current aircraft? The carrier remains cryptic. “We’re evaluating a lot of different options on how best to bring new products so it’s hard to predict at this time but we’re trying to accelerate things as much as we possibly can,” says Bieler.

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3 Responses to Exclusive: Virgin America to offer more live news, sports

  1. Stef June 7, 2011 at 7:10 am #

    What I’d love to see in an Inflight Entertainment System is that they move the screen one foot further away from my face. That’d they’d have to move the seat before me for that would be a sacrifice I’m willing to make.

  2. Mary Kirby June 7, 2011 at 9:01 am #

    Stef, I’d like that too. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if IFE and connectivity drove enough ancillary revenue for carriers that they could consider improving seat pitch? One can dream…

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