Review: Virgin Australia’s Wireless In-Flight Entertainment System

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I always have some sort of electronic device with me – either a smartphone or my iPod – whenever I fly between Melbourne and Sydney. It keeps me distracted during the one hour flight since the inflight entertainment options are crap, not interesting, or non-existent (depends on the plane). However, soon that’s all about to change.

Recently, both Virgin Australia and Qantas have installed Wi-Fi on their domestic flights to deliver its inflight entertainment – allowing the flyer access to a wide variety of content stored onboard, especially on its older fleet which might have a very-tiny-and-very-old screen, or nothing at all

However, both are taking different approaches: Qantas has given every seat an iPad, while Virgin is letting you bring your own device on board and use that to view content.

Virgin’s Wireless In-Flight Entertainment System lets flyers connect their smartphone, tablet and laptop to a public Wi-Fi hotspot, and then delivers content via an mobile app or a website. After a trial last year, Virgin is rolling this out across its domestic and international short haul routes (e.g. New Zealand, Pacific and South East Asia). It hopes to have all of its Boeing 737-800 and Embraer 190 fleet have this system by the end of the year.

I recently got to try out the new system during my recent flight from Melbourne to Sydney; and its not too bad. Set up is relatively easy – I installed the Virgin Australia app on my Galaxy S3, and activated it once I was at the airport (which, oddly, you must do before you fly). After that, switch to flight mode and turn it off. Once it is safe to do so, turn it back on and connect to the Wi-Fi network “VirginAustralia”. Launch the app again, and you’re set.

The Virgin Australia app is only available on iOS and Android – they have no plans to create a Windows Phone app. However, they do say on their page that they are “working to increase the availability of the system on additional devices” – but that means nothing many companies have said basically the same thing in regards to Windows Phone and little have acted on it.

If you’re planning to use your laptop instead, all you need to do is to make sure you the latest Silverlight installed on your computer. You can check if you have it installed by going to this test page – remember, you won’t be able to download it once you are on board, so best to download it when you are at home. Once it is safe to do so, connect to the Wi-Fi network “VirginAustralia’ and go to “boardconnect.aero” on your browser.

The content offering is pretty decent and is likely to keep you entertained if you’re flying domestic or across the Tasman. On a quick glance, there is some recent stuff like Arrow and The Big Bang Theory. I’d opted to have a look at their music options, so I can do some homework while in the air. The music library on board consisted of a variety of genres with a mixture of new and old. During my flight, I spotted Adele’s 19, Daft Punk’s Random Access Memories and the Tron: Legacy soundtrack, and Gossip’s A Joyful Noise.

However, there’s not many recently-released movies on the system. Reading the inflight magazine and skipping to the entertainment options, there were a lot of movies that were missing from the Wireless Inflight Entertainment System, but were available on the Galaxy Tab and digEplayer – like Man of Steel and Now You See Me.

Another thing is to make sure that you have enough battery to sustain the flight. I highly suggest that you put the battery at 100% capacity (or near to that) before you leave, especially if you’re flying across the Tasman. Given that this is only being implemented in domestic and international short haul flights, you most likely won’t need to recharge the device mid-flight (until you land, of course).

Performance-wise, there was no problems with the streaming – it was smooth and fast. However, that could be the very few people I saw using the system. Most were asleep, watching Sky News or The Simpsons on the Foxtel live broadcasts on the flight, or playing minigames on their phones. As well, Virgin Australia didn’t promote the service before boarding – sort of redundant since you should be aware from the text message, but nice to reinforce the idea.

That said, it is nice to see airlines embracing this technology to offer more entertainment choices. Now, if only they took the next step and let people connect to the internet during the flight (through the existing Wi-Fi network), then I would be a very happy person – mainly because I would be playing this instead of doing work.