A recent family vacation to California was a great opportunity to try out Virgin Atlantic’s inflight connectivity on one of its Boeing 787 Dreamliners.
Powered by Panasonic Avionics Ku-band eXConnect service it allows passengers to surf the web, send and receive emails and browse social media. Virgin Atlantic says its onboard WiFi service lets you use the internet in much the same way as you do at home.
It says you can also connect to your VPN to get inflight access to your work emails and intranet.
Virgin’s instructions say one of the only things you can’t do, due to bandwidth limitations, is stream media, such as video. However, a chat with one of the cabin crew revealed that passengers often do use it to look at YouTube content and similar video streaming providers. Anecdotally, the cabin crew member said that they don’t receive many complaints about the service and on the whole it is well received.
To access the onboard WiFi, you can use any of your devices, including your laptop, phone or tablet. The service is activated at a height of 10,000 feet (approx. 3,000 meters), around 20 minutes after take-off.
You can also browse, free of charge, material like destination and aircraft information, the airline’s “Retail Therapy” magazine and other services that Virgin Atlantic offers.
So what does the inflight connectivity cost?
You have two options – either pay £4.99 for the “WiFi Light” option that gives you 40 Megabytes (Mb) of data, or £14.99 for the “WiFi Max” 150Mb option.
The airline says “if you’re looking to only catch up on social media whilst soaring through the skies”, the £4.99 pass is the one for you. It adds “You’ll be all set to use messaging apps, email and carry out some simple web browsing”.
During the inflight connectivity session time you have purchased, you can switch between devices such as a laptop computer and a smartphone within a single session; however Virgin Atlantic says you may not have multiple devices accessing the service at the same time during a session. You can also close down a session and restart it later (as I did) to save data. The instructions warn you to turn off automatic updates as these can easily eat into your data allowance.
You are also warned that service will become unavailable when flying through higher latitudes, such as near the Arctic Circle, or other areas outside the coverage of communications satellites.
This is normal for geostationary satellites that cannot connect at extreme northerly or southerly latitudes, and coverage can often be patchy between some satellites.
You are also advised that you may lose coverage when flying through the airspace of countries that have not approved such communications. The instructions add that bad weather may also affect transmission quality (due to rain fade, with the Ku-band satellite signal being attenuated by heavy rain/moisture).
Virgin Atlantic also warn that although the on-board Wi-Fi inflight connectivity service offers the same security as with any ordinary access point, it recommends that users have appropriate firewall, anti-virus, or other software installed on their devices.
The guide says the wireless local area network (WLAN) on-board the aircraft uses both 2.4 GHz and 5 GHz signals. It also says download speeds of up to 5 Mbps and upload speeds of up to 0.5 Mbps should be possible.
It adds “however, you should be aware that the higher the number of users using it on the aircraft at the same time, the more the capacity is split”.
So how did it pan out?
On the outward LHR-LAX leg I first tried to pay for the service via PayPal but was unable to complete the transaction for some reason. Reaching for the credit card and paying via the T-mobile portal got a better result and the 40Mb option was soon running.
At the time the session was initiated the aircraft was over Greenland, admittedly at a high latitude, but certainly not outside the limits for geostationary satellite coverage
Nevertheless web pages, such as the BBC news page, were taking about a minute to download and the service was, on the whole, not very snappy. I had more luck with email and was able to download new mail, reply and generally keep up to date.
I also took the opportunity to work on a story I had in progress on my Google Docs account, which went well. This allowed me to finish the story, save it as a Word document and email it.
On the return leg from LAX to LHR I tried again and over Canada the service was much better. Web pages were loading in about 5-10 seconds, email was snappy and I was able to retrieve, edit and resave a Google Docs document with no trouble.
Two checks with a Speedtest app on the return leg, spaced two hours apart, showed download speeds to my Samsung Galaxy tablet of 7.52 and 4.90Mbps respectively, which is roughly in line with what Virgin promised. Upload speeds were less – around 0.060Mbps during the two times I tested it.
Inflight connectivity providers are not great fans of Speedtest apps as they can give false results and are a snapshot in time of the bandwidth available. Nevertheless the results reflected the overall connectivity experience quite well.
Overall, I managed to eat through my entire 40Mb allowance on the first flight, but still had 15Mb free on the return leg. Running the Speedtest app is a known data gobbler so this may not have been representative.
Unless you are just answering a few emails and updating a few social media sites I think it is worth paying the extra and opting for the £14.99 150Mb package, especially if your work is critical.
I’m not a big fan of buying inflight connectivity by the Megabyte – I prefer buying it by the entire flight segment. But I understand why airlines do this. Selling connectivity for a short-haul flight segment is one thing, but on a long-haul (11-hour flight) a passenger could burn through a lot of data, so selling it by the Megabyte makes sense for them.
So overall, the inflight connectivity from Panasonic Avionics worked well on the Virgin Atlantic 787 Dreamliner and on the whole delivered what it promised.
Virgin Atlantic/Panasonic Avionics have been invited to comment on this feature, and any response received will be added.