SouthWest Airlines looked on the verge of becoming the United States’ geekiest airline this week — but it lasted for just a couple of days before Virgin America snatched the crown.
The initial claim to the title came thanks to a company named Row 44 that hooks up to a satellite system initially designed to provide internet services to people in remote land-based location and adapts it so that passengers can get up to 11Mbps Wi-Fi on flights. SouthWest currently offers that for $5 per passenger per flight.
Over the last week Row 44 has unveiled several tech and licensing deals that improve the service. The first is the ability for passengers to access a range of recorded TV shows and movies using their Wi-Fi enabled device, the idea being this is a way to get in-flight entertainment into planes without the need to fit seat-back screens.
The second is that the system will also allow specially enhanced connections to live streaming of five news and business channels, sports channel Versus, and live broadcast of Major League Baseball games; that’s instead of the passenger logging into the legal or illegal streaming site of their choice and hoping the ordinary Wi-Fi connection is good enough.
It should be noted that there’s no official word this will be available on SouthWest, though it certainly seems the most logical first outlet.
However, that’s all been overshadowed by a combination of Virgin America’s latest features and its choice of promotional strategy. From next year it will combine seatback screens with WiFi, meaning users can access the Internet without the need for a separate device. There’ll also be an option for passengers who are midway through a TV show or movie when the system is shut down for landing to download the rest of the video to their portable device to watch later on.
Of course, all of this is subject to the system actually working, and seat-back touchscreens aren’t always a joyously responsive experience. It’s also to be hoped that the people coming up with security measures for the system are smarter than the inevitable on-board hackers.
Still, you have to give credit to Virgin for the fact that they are trialing the system on a A320 that has been officially nicknamed “#nerdbird” in response to the high proportion of Wi-Fi users on its cross-country route.