The sky was once one of the very few places on the planet where we could escape our addiction to communication. Not anymore. The once sanctuary of solitude is slowly becoming a thing of the past as airlines are engaged in the pursuit of airborne connectivity – making all available technological conveniences available at all times in flight.
Virgin America announced today that they’re the first US domestic airline to offer Aircell’s Gogo in-flight Internet service (Wi-Fi) on every flight – regardless of aircraft type, route or flight time. Virgin America will mark the milestone with another first for the industry; an air-to-ground Skype video call with Oprah Winfrey which will air tomorrow afternoon on the Oprah Show. Virgin America employee Mandalay Roberts will host the discussion with Oprah (as part of her “Where the Skype are You” show) from 37,000 feet on board one of Virgin America’s Airbus A320’s with a virtual audience of around 120 passengers. The Skype discussion took place from the first class cabin of Flight VX780 en-route from Seattle to Los Angeles. The airborne audience also took part in the inaugural Skype enabled in-flight wine tasting.
Ironically, Virgin America doesn’t permit Voice-Over-IP (VoIP) meaning that clients such as Skype will be unavailable to passenger due to company concerns over a quiet cabin environment. Obviously, there are sneaky ways around this restriction but most mainstream passengers will be happy with the ability to send and receive emails, browse the web, read Facebook, update Twitter and utilise any number of the countless services offered online. Connectivity is available from any enabled wireless device such as laptops, mobile phones and i-type devices with no download restrictions. The Wi-Fi capability is fully integrated with the airline’s proprietary ‘RED’ system – so it exists alongside on-demand video and audio, movies, text messaging, Ethernet and USB ports in every seat and Google maps. What’s the use of these services without a power supply, right? Well, there are two 100-volt power sockets for every three seats – even in economy!
Virgin America says that up to one quarter of all passengers on board their services is logged on at any time. The Gogo service is affordably priced at $12.95 for daytime flights of over three hours, $9.95 for daytime flights of less than three hours, $5.95 on red-eye flights and $7.95 for handheld devices. In November 2008, Virgin America launched Wi-Fi connectivity and christened the service with the first ever “air-to-ground” video stream with YouTube Live – YouTube’s first ever real-world user event. In February 2009, the airline became the first to host a live national television broadcast via Wi-Fi stream while in-flight over the coast of Massachusetts with the CBS News morning show. The airline is also the first airline to show guests which flights are Wi-Fi enabled at the time of booking.
From an industry point of view, always available Wi-Fi might prove to be a reliable primary method of in-flight communication; superseding clumsy and costly systems such as ACARS and other SATCOM systems. It could easily be integrated with company communications providing easy connectivity to up-to-date information libraries, performance calculators and real-time color radar paints. Possibilities are endless. To try and list the possible applications is somewhat of an insult to the endless array of uses. Of course it also provides a little entertainment during crew rest on long flights.
The push for airlines to rationalise their fleet with onboard connectivity is slowly becoming the holy grail of any airline, and it’ll be a race that will make for an interesting spectator sport over coming months.
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