Virgin: Sky-high internet anyone?

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Virgin Australia (VAH.AX) is reportedly considering introducing in-flight wi-fi to allow passengers to surf the net and check their emails, after it rolls out a wireless entertainment system across its fleet.

Domestic airlines in the US already offer in-flight wi-fi, which is proving poular, but it has yet to be introduced by any carrier in Australia. The issue here is that slower, more expensive satellite systems need to be used because of a lack of ground based mobile towers, thanks to our sparsely populated continent.

Virgin’s chief customer officer Mark Hassell has told the Australian Financial Review that the company needs to look at how they bring it in, how affordable is it and what infrastructure would be needed. Providing in-flight wi-fi across most of its fleet would give Virgin a leg up over competitor Qantas Airways (QAN.AX), which already has a wi-fi entertainment system on its Boeing 767s, but is presently only streamed to Qantas-owned iPads, given to all customers, irrespective of which class they are flying.

Virgin is already installing extra power points in its airport terminals to allow passengers to charge their personal devices before boarding. The company’s new wi-fi entertainment system has already been fitted to 37 of its Boeing 737 and Embraer E190 aircraft, and should have it in all of them by the end of November. All 10 of Virgin’s planes flying across the Tasman and to Pacific Islands have also received the system.

While it doesn’t currently allow web access, it does allow passengers to stream more than 300 hours of video and music content to their own devices. The advantages of wi-fi are many, including replacing seat-back video screens which add weight and have to be repaired at a cost, and no longer will passengers be annoyed when their seat-back screen is broken on full flights.

In 2010, Air New Zealand (AIZ.AX) was reported to have added SMS and wi-fi services on its new Boeing 777-300 aircraft for customers to use in conjunction with their smartphones, but this doesn’t appear to be active and may have been abandoned.

Foolish takeaway

It should only be a matter of time before both Virgin and Qantas offer full internet wi-fi capabilities in-flight, at least for most Australian east-coast and trans-Tasman routes. Another win for passengers, and another cost for airlines to consider.

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Motley Fool writer/analyst Mike King doesn’t own shares in any companies mentioned.

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