Virgin eyes full connectivity for passengers under new Panasonic deal

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Virgin Atlantic aims to duplicate in its aircraft cabins the type of entertainment and communication services that passengers enjoy on the ground, including ultimately supporting in-flight high-speed Internet.

The UK-based carrier's new $70 million deal with Panasonic Avionics initially covers the installation of the manufacturer's latest-generation eX2 in-flight entertainment and connectivity (IFEC) system plus eXPhone in-flight mobile connectivity on 10 new Airbus A330-300s, which are slated to be delivered starting in February.

But Virgin also intends to retrofit the eX2 and eXPhone systems to its current Boeing 747s and offer the solutions on its future Boeing 787 twinjets.

Panasonic has a standing request with Airbus for line-fit status for eXPhone on the European airframer's current-generation aircraft.

Aeromobile, which supplies the hardware for eXPhone, says, however, that the A330s will "initially be installed with AeroMobile technology post-aircraft delivery". Virgin would like to see the solutions made line-fit offerable.

"All of our new aircraft, we want it to be line-fit clearly - that's the A330s and the 787s," Virgin Atlantic CEO Steve Ridgway told ATI and Flightglobal during a press briefing in Las Vegas, where Virgin is celebrating 10 years of service.

"The 747s will be retrofit, but the new aircraft we absolutely want to come down the line. And I think there is a convergence happening there. Panasonic, I think, has been making progress on that, and so we're hopeful," says Ridgway.

The Virgin CEO notes that the Panasonic eX2 IFEC system selected by Virgin represents the latest-generation seat-back display from Panasonic. "It gets better and better, 300 hours of entertainment. It's more reliable. It lighter," says Ridgway. "But the big breakthrough and the thing we're excited about for the next three years is also what we can now do to connect the aircraft to what's going on on the ground. And I think our ambition, what we want to do with Panasonic over the next three years, is to really take that forward, so that ultimately all the things that you do on the ground that you're used to doing, you can do in the air. You can do it fast. You can do it easily. You can take your devices on board, whether it's your laptops, your iPads, your iPhones, your blackberrys, whatever."

Virgin president Richard Branson acknowledges that some passengers "understandably" may not care for the fact that the carrier will permit in-flight voice calls.

"What we will have to do is to make sure all mobile phones are on silent," he says, adding: "There will be an alert in front you, a flashing light on the screen when a call is coming in for you. We might introduce silent zones...but we'll see how it goes."

Panasonic partner AeroMobile provides the connectivity hardware for eXPhone. The system will operate over Inmarsat's SwiftBroadband aeronautical service.

"We are now achieving real scale for our business, underlining that our technology is now recognised by both passengers and airlines is a 'must have'," says AeroMobile CEO Bjorn-Taale Sandberg.

Virgin also plans to ultimately bring high-speed Internet to passengers. AeroMobile "fully supports Virgin Atlantic's desire to move towards full connectivity with Panasonic Avionics on future aircraft", says the firm.

Asked if a Ku-band or Ka-band-based connectivity solution will be employed for high-speed Internet, Panasonic executive director for China Charles Ogilvie says: "I think there is an interesting path forward."