Virgin America dreams big for next generation IFEC system

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Virgin America is dreaming big for its next generation in-flight entertainment and connectivity (IFEC) system, which will be rolled out in the fourth quarter of 2012.

"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 IFEC 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 Virgin America vice president of marketing Porter Gale. Social gaming and real-time geolocation services could also be on the menu, according to a USA Today report.

Virgin America remains cryptic on whether the new IFEC system will roll off the production line with a new Airbus A320 or if the carrier intends to begin by retrofitting existing aircraft.

"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.

The airline's current embedded in-flight entertainment system Red represents a collaborative effort between hardware giant Panasonic Avionics and software firm CoKinetic.

Offering more live news and sports channels is among a number of upgrades planned for the current system. "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 Gale.

Virgin America also intends to support real-time credit card transactions via the system by spring next year.

The carrier had previously expected to offer connected apps on its present system, but decided to wait for the new IFEC 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 offers Aircell's Gogo in-flight Internet system throughout its small fleet of A320 family aircraft. It is not yet clear if the operator intends to choose Aircell's upgrade path to Ka-band satellite-based connectivity.

"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.