Is Virgin Australia hiding that it has in-flight connectivity?

Recent Boeing 737-800 deliveries to Virgin Australia have been notable not for their all white scheme or new livery but rather a small hump on the rear crown of the fuselage that Virgin will not comment on what it is, such as a radome for connectivity to use mobile phones or Internet in-flight. See this closeup of VH-YFC:

VH-YFC with hump detail.JPGVH-YFF, the most recent 737-800 delivery to Virgin, also sports this hump. No, it is not the radome for the LiveTV antenna, which is larger and more forward on the fuselage:

VH-VOK LiveTV.JPGIt is also not a standard 737 fitting. Have a look at this radome-less Qantas 737-800:

VH-VXE.JPGThe hump on Virgin’s 737s is typical in shape to the radome used on aircraft to protect an antenna receiving a satellite or ground-based signal the aircraft then uses to supply connectivity to passengers. However, it is smaller in size than existing radomes to supply Internet, such as by Row 44 on Southwest 737s, but larger than the radome to cover mobile phone-only connectivity, such as on Air New Zealand’s OnAir-equipped Airbus A320.

Asked about the hump and if it could be for in-flight connectivity, a Virgin Australia spokeswoman says, “We have no plans at this stage to introduce WIFI into this fleet.” Follow-up queries to Virgin about what the hump is were not returned.

The operative phrase in the statement is “at this stage”, and also worth noting is that wifi is not the same as mobile phone access. Either way, the statement is peculiar given chief executive John Borghetti’s statement at February’s half-annual results conference that “the moment that [connectivity] capability is available you will see us entering this space.”

Borghetti explained that Australian passengers “are ready for it [on-board connectivity], particularly on longer sector journeys. But the big issue with it is not so much an airline issue…it’s an infrastructure issue. If you fly on Virgin America from San Francisco to New York you would be able to use Internet live [throughout the trip] because there are infrastructure situations in place for that to happen. We’re not quite there yet. We believe in the next two-to-three years Australia will have that capability.”

Virgin America uses Aircell’s land-based gogo system that is unavailable outside of 100 miles from US borders. The other major connectivity providers use wider-reaching satellite networks. OnAir says it already covers all of the world except the extreme poles while Row 44 plans to expand its coverage further by 2013.

Borghetti’s 2-3 year timeframe may indicate the carrier is holding out for the ultra-highspeed Ka band spectrum to become available, which is targeted for 2013 although might not be realistic until 2015.

Qantas could be hot on Virgin’s heels considering it is polling its passengers on what they would use in-flight connectivity for and how much they would be willing to pay for it, as Lifehacker reports. Two years ago Qantas was poised to offer OnAir connectivity on its A380s, but this has still yet to materialize, based on one trip report. Last decade Qantas conducted a trial of AeroMobile services on domestic flights. V Australia has AeroMobile connectivity fitted to its 777 fleet, although it too is not switched on for passenger use.


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