At the tenth anniversary celebrations of Virgin Atlantic’s London-Las Vegas route, Sir Richard Branson talks about the airline’s plans to install new in-flight entertainment systems and on board connectivity across its fleet.
Since June 2000 Virgin Atlantic has flown two million passengers from London to the US city, upping its initial two flights a week to daily in May 2006. And next April, the carrier will launch a second direct twice-weekly service from Manchester, which is expected to increase capacity by 30 per cent on the route.
Speaking at a press conference in Las Vegas, Rossi Ralenkotter, president and CEO of the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority, said: “It’s been a very successful partnership and the Manchester flight we know is going to be successful. Over the last ten years the UK has become the most important international overseas market for Las Vegas.”
Competition on the London-Las Vegas route comes from British Airways with its daily services from Heathrow (Virgin fly from Gatwick). But from Manchester there are no direct services offered since Bmi dropped the route last year – Delta Air Lines does, however, operate daily via Atlanta. For more information click here.
In a recent announcement, Virgin also revealed details about its plans to offer mobile phone calls, text messaging and email on board, as well as a new Panasonic in-flight entertainment system. (For more information click here.)
Sir Richard Branson said: “I think Virgin Atlantic has always been known for making flying different and entertainment is where we came from within the Virgin empire so entertainment has always been key to what we want to do. We were the first airline to introduce seat-back video systems across all our aircraft and we have had a long relationship with Panasonic.
“We have placed a US$70 million order [with Panasonic] for our new A330s which start coming next year for its latest-generation EX2 digital system – it’s better, it’s got 300 hours of entertainment, it’s more reliable, it’s lighter but the big breakthrough that we are really excited about is what we can now do to connect the aircraft to what’s going on on the ground.
“Our vision of what we want to do with Panasonic over the next few years is to really take that forward so that all the things you do on the ground you can do in the air. And you can do it fast, you can do it easily, and you can use your devices on board – your laptop, your iPad, your iPhone, your Blackberry – whatever, so you will have all the entertainment on board that we are renowned for plus all these added services. I think one of the things we will try to do – and clearly many airlines will ultimately try and do – is to make it more innovative, more exciting and easier for passengers to use.
“This is just the beginning of the process. This is going to go fleet-wide – we are retro-fitting our B747s so they will have these new systems right throughout the aircraft and then, of course, the B787s, which start arriving in 2014 – they will have full connectivity as well as all these hundreds of hours of entertainment.”
“The first A330 aircraft arrives in March next year and that will be the first phase for the connectivity,” says Branson. [For more details, click here.] He added: “The retrofit on the 747s will start in early 2012, and will take about six months.”
In answer to concerns about the intrusive nature of phones being used on board, Branson says: “We might introduce silent zones – because people will be paying almost the same as they would a normal phone call I think [the service] will be used a lot more and, therefore, we will experiment and see if we could have silent zones or phone zones. But I think because of the noise of the engines people won’t be particularly disturbed by someone talking on the phone.”
With some carriers charging US$8 per minute to make phone calls in-flight, Charles P Ogilvie, executive director of China for Panasonic Avionics, is keen to assure travellers that Virgin will not be charging hefty prices for its services, saying that costs will be “significantly less”.
He adds: “As the cost of carriage goes down and [there is] more capacity, you’re actually able to charge less and, right now, under the old classic satellite system, the price is incredibly high. What’s being done here is not only can you use your own cell phone, Blackberry, iPhone or iPad but you can also be billed through your own provider so you are not pulling out your a credit card or fumbling with an in-seat phone.”
Sir Richard says: “If you can really get these data services competitively priced and appearing on your own bill then that is where the revolution will come and that is what we are enabling to happen. Since we introduced connectivity on Virgin trains, [business travellers] are actually starting work the second they get on the train and are actually getting maybe four hours extra business in a day as a result. And I wouldn’t be surprised if the same happened on planes.”
Report by Jenny Southan