When connecting to the outside world on Virgin proves a struggle

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There are many inflight delights that set Virgin Atlantic apart from other longhaul carriers, such as mood lighting, friendly flight attendants, cheeky signage, relevant entertainment, and a feeling that no matter where you sit, you’re valued as both a passenger and a person. A few examples of that? The adorable Mile High Tea that was recently rolled out for all cabins, and the airline’s first-ever celebratory Pride Flight.

But when it comes to Virgin Atlantic’s inflight WiFi on the ex-Air Berlin A330-200, the experience needs some work.

On a recent overnight Virgin Atlantic flight from Los Angeles to Manchester, England, the ISP on board was T-Mobile, which is responsible for the WiFi service. The A330-200 carries Panasonic Avionics’ connectivity hardware and transmits via Ku-band satellite.

T-Mobile is also listed as ISP on the airline’s Boeing 787-9 aircraft, while Gogo handles the connections for all other Virgin Atlantic aircraft. Instructions for getting on the WiFi can be found in the inflight magazine VERA under the heading, “Pretty Fly for a WiFi.”

However, this connection wouldn’t work once the flight was in the air. A flight attendant told us that the connection would begin once we were out of the United States, somewhere around Canada, which was about the time I would be dozing off. So I scrapped the idea of checking emails until I checked into my hotel in Manchester.

Instead, I turned on the seatback IFE that comes with every seat in economy class, and settled in to watch episodes of the most recent season of “VEEP” followed by the glammed up Hollywood story of serial killer Ted Bundy, starring Zach Efron. (The headset that comes with every seat was broken but the flight attendant quickly replaced it with some earbuds.)

After about four hours of sleep, I awoke in Manchester, not quite fresh as a daisy, but ready to take on most of the day before jet lag struck.

On the return flight to Los Angeles, which is nearly 12 hours long and most of it during the day, I was ready to splurge for WiFi and get some work done. Again, T-Mobile served as ISP for the A330-200.

There are three offerings:

  1. Messaging: $3.99

  2. Chat and Surf: $16.99

  3. Wi-Fi Max: $39.99

However, each of these have a “Fair Use” limit of data that can be downloaded. For messaging, it’s 50MB; for Chat and Surf, it’s 150MB; and for the Wi-Fi Max, it’s 500MB. So once you’ve hit that data limit, your Internet session effectively ends.

I only needed to check email and send a few iMessages so I opted for the Chat and Surf tier.

The speed was initially incredibly slow, taking several minutes to load my Gmail inbox. Meanwhile, my data usage was going up.

About an hour after paying for WiFi, during which I had put away my computer for a drink service, I was finally able to open my emails and actually reply to them. But 30 minutes later, I had reached my data limit and the session was over. Unless I wanted to pay again.

I ended up sending an email to the Hotspot Service helpline to complain about the slow speed. But they only replied that their system showed I had used the WiFi until the data limit was reached.

In short, the airline has surrendered a part of the customer experience to an outside provider, and that provider’s benchmark appears to be Internet availability, not speed.

Speaking at a launch party for the Virgin Atlantic Los Angeles-Manchester route, company VP of customer experience Daniel Kerzner acknowledged that inflight connectivity isn’t on the same level as hotel WiFi or even coffee shop WiFi.

“It’s an interesting space because the more customers that use it globally, ultimately the slower the speeds get for our customers,” he said.

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Kerzner continued: “Until the WiFi providers are able to launch new satellites and/or the technology evolves… It’s a bit of a Catch 22 in the industry but we think of it as a complement to the larger entertainment we have on board.”

Kerzner pointed out that Virgin Atlantic’s new A350 planes will have Bluetooth on board in the social spaces and the option for passengers to control the seat screens with their phone. And that will only keep evolving.

The A350s will also offer Inmarsat GX inflight connectivity, a competing connectivity service to both Panasonic and Gogo.

“The biggest change we will see on board in 3-5 years will be technology,” explained Kerzner. “Whether that’s connectivity or entertainment or how to customize the experience, technology will be the next leap for the industry.” We’ll drink our Mile High Tea to that.

All images are credited to the author, Juliana Shallcross

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