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Virgin America unveils next generation of in-flight entertainment

Courtesy Virgin America

Virgin America on Tuesday unveiled plans for a new hybrid technology platform, offering both seatback content and connectivity via personal devices.

When you’re on an airplane, would you rather play games, shop and watch movies on a seatback screen or fire up your mobile device and access that content on a wireless network?

Some airlines are sticking with seatback entertainment, others plan to go Wi-Fi only, but Virgin America is betting you’ll want both. 

At the 2011 Airline Passenger Experience Association (APEX) Expo in Seattle on Tuesday, Virgin America announced that next year it will be the first domestic airline to adopt a hybrid platform that offers passengers extensive entertainment plus Wi-Fi connectivity both through their seatback and their own personal devices.

Germany-based Condor Airlines announced earlier it will also use the system but has not yet started flying with it.

Virgin America already offers power outlets at every seat, fleet-wide Wi-Fi (through Aircell’s Gogo service) and its Red entertainment system that includes live satellite TV, games, shopping and the option to e-chat with other passengers.

For the next generation of the system, the airline will integrate BoardConnect, a platform developed by airline IT specialist Lufthansa Systems that lets passengers interact with the system in multiple ways before, during and after a flight. 

“For example, if a traveler did not finish watching a film or TV show in-flight, they could save and download to their iPod and finish at their hotel,” said airline spokesperson Abby Lunardini. “We hope to build in custom concierge service as well. For example, you can log on via your Elevate number and get your flight details, movie choices onboard, plan your in-flight meal, etc.”

In a statement, Virgin America's President and CEO David Cush said the easy-to-install system will allow the airline to offer passengers “the best of both worlds.”

“Just offering a larger Wi-Fi pipe with no seatback entertainment as some of our competitors are doing is limiting given Wi-Fi bandwidth," Cush said. "We want to give our travelers more options instead of fewer, including the ability to multitask across platforms – just as they do in their lives on the ground.”

The new Red platform, which will include larger, high-definition seatback screens, is now undergoing back-end testing on Virgin America’s new Airbus A320, dubbed the #nerdbird for the high number of passengers that log onto the Wi-Fi system on flights between San Francisco and Boston. The system is currently invisible to passengers but should be available to everyone in late 2012.

“It's all about connectivity,” said Kathryn Creedy, North American Editor for Inflight Magazine, both for passengers through their mobile devices and for airlines seeking an in-flight entertainment system that requires less maintenance.

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