Virgin America goes ‘hybrid’, adds wireless IFE into its RED entertainment system

Besides the growing number of airlines that are rolling out (or about to roll out) broadband Internet on their aircraft (e.g, Lufthansa, Turkish Airlines, SAS, Norwegian, Virgin Atlantic), these days the buzz in in-flight entertainment is all about bringing media tablets such as the iPad into the cabin (e.g, Jetstar) and/or installing wireless IFE systems (e.g, American Airlines and Gol).

Further upping the ante, Virgin America – probably the most tech-embracing airline in the world – has announced it will roll out what it calls a “hybrid IFE&C platform.” Besides offering entertainment via embedded, seat-centric screens, the airline will also offer passengers wi-fi connectivity through their seatback system and their own personal devices, as well as offer wireless access to content stored on an onboard server.

Virgin America has selected Lufthansa Systems’ new BoardConnect platform for the next iteration of its Red in-flight entertainment and communications (IFE&C) platform. The new Red system, slated for a late 2012 release, includes larger, high-definition touchscreen seatback monitors, full wi-fi connectivity and four times more entertainment content. It will also allow passengers to connect their own electronic devices to the system pre-flight, in-flight and post-flight. “For example, if a passenger did not finish watching a film or TV show in-flight, they could save and download to their iPod and finish at their hotel,” said Abby Lunardini, VP of corporate communications for Virgin America.

Virgin America’s CEO David Cush said the system will allow the airline to offer passengers “the best of both worlds.” “Just offering a larger wi-fi pipe with no seatback entertainment as some of our competitors are doing is limiting given wi-fi bandwidth,” Cush said. “We want to give our travelers more options instead of fewer, including the ability to multitask across platforms – just as they do in their lives on the ground.” […] “Our focus on innovation is a core part of our business model and guest offering, and BoardConnect will allow us to […] pace the larger consumer trends in mobile technology.” Adds Virgin America’s Lunardini “This is a significant investment for us. “We want to stay ahead of the path … a lot of people fly with us because it. We’re an entertainment-driven brand.”

According to Lunardini, the airline also hope “to build in custom concierge service as well. For example, you can log on via your Elevate number and get your flight details, movie choices onboard, plan your in-flight meal, etc.” Earlier this year, Virgin America also said its new IFE&C system will support connected apps, such as Facebook and Twitter. Social gaming and real-time geolocation services could also be on the menu.

The new Red platform is currently undergoing back-end testing on a Virgin America A320, dubbed the #nerdbird for the high number of passengers that log onto the wi-fi system on flights between San Francisco and Boston. Virgin America will also be the first to launch Gogo’s ATG-4 technology in the first half of 2012, which will improve wi-fi capacity to the plane by approximately four times the current performance.

Current Red features
Virgin America in 2010 already upgraded its ‘Red’ system with a number of innovative features, including the first ever seatback digital shopping platform, an open tab service, and interactive Google Maps with terrain view that tracks the flight’s location. Passengers can also use the system to watch live satellite television, chat with other passengers, play 3D games such as Doom, offset carbon emissions for their flight, or purchase snacks, meals, and beverages from their seats via Red. Flight attendants receive the orders via a tablet device and bring the ordered items to the seat. Recently Virgin also partnered with Google to let passengers try out Google’s Chrome Book device on select Virgin America flights.

Qantas to trial iPad for in-flight wi-fi
Besides the deployment on Virgin America aircraft, Lufthansa System’s BoardConnect wireless IFE system is also about to be tested by Qantas. According to Australian Business Traveller, Qantas will trial Apple’s iPad for in-flight entertainment, using wi-fi to stream content to the tablets from a central server on the aircraft. In a six-week trial that will run from the end of October to early December 2011, all 254 passengers on a Qantas B767-300 will be issued with an iPad 2 that runs a specialised ‘Q Streaming’ app, that provides passengers access to tv shows and movies.

The service will be provided free of charge and passengers in business class will also get a flexible stand that holds the iPad on the fold-down meal tray. The iPads will be ‘locked down’, bypassing Apple’s normal home screen for the Q Streaming app, so they don’t work outside the aircraft’s wireless network. In the second stage of the trial program passengers will also be able to view the streaming content on their own device after downloading the free Q Streaming app.

The aim of the Q Streaming pilot is to test whether the Boardconnect system is a suitable alternative on Qantas aircraft without wired IFE systems, such as its fleet of 767s, for example to make sure that the wireless IFE technology has the bandwidth to handle a large number of simultaneous requests. If successful, the system will be rolled out on ten Boeing 767-300s, on which Qantas is likely to install seats with build-in iPad brackets, just as planned for it low-cost subsidiary Jetstar.

Panasonic and Thales launch wireless streaming solutions
Flightglobal reports that embedded IFE&C market leaders Panasonic Avionics and Thales have also just launched their own wireless streaming solutions. Panasonic says its new wireless IFE system, called eXW, can be offered as a standalone system or together with embedded IFE&C, and provides passenger access to a branded portal that offers news, information, video on demand, seat-to-seat chat, and catalogue shopping. Thales, meanwhile, is working together with Siemens on the development of a wireless addition to its TopSeries embedded IFE&C system.

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