An airline like Virgin Atlantic has, from its inception in 1984, sought to differentiate itself from the perceived formality of flag-carrier rival British Airways by promoting a more relaxed, innovative image.

That “fun factor” has frequently involved stunts by airline founder Richard Branson, but there comes a point at which something more is required than having the chairman dress up as a female member of cabin crew or fly around the world in a hot air balloon. 

Connectivity gives the airline the opportunity to entertain and inform its passengers, on and off the aircraft.

“We’ve got quite a proud heritage of thinking how to keep passengers entertained on board, because all our flights are longhaul,” noted Virgin Atlantic SVP- marketing & customer experience Reuben Arnold. “That need hasn’t really changed, it’s just that there are more options available.”

Virgin started rolling out connectivity on its Airbus A330s around five years ago and the entire fleet of A330s, A340s, Boeing 747s and 787s should be fitted with the necessary equipment by the end of this year, with live TV having been brought online just in time to start streaming coverage of the Rio Olympics in early August. 

Onboard connectivity in Europe has lagged behind North America, Arnold said, but passenger demands mean that this gap must be closed rapidly.

“With connectivity, more and more customers are just expecting to be able to do the same in the air as they do on the ground. Our customers expect Virgin Atlantic to do things slightly differently and to push the boundaries. We’re always looking at ways of keeping customers entertained. What can we do beyond offering internet connection?”

Satellite games

One such event occurred Christmas 2015, when a satellite link-up allowed two Virgin aircraft on opposite sides of the world—one flying from Shanghai to London, the other from London to San Francisco, to connect to an electronic game that required the two sets of passengers to compete in solving a puzzle. Another was the live streaming of a rock gig on board an inaugural London-Detroit service.

One rapidly growing trend is the move by passengers away from the traditional seatback inflight entertainment (IFE) system toward using their own personal electronic devices.

Until now, this has tended to mean passengers pre-loading a tablet with downloaded films or television programs; Virgin plans to build on that, as well as breathe new life into IFEs.

“In pre-travel communications we will send passengers information about what type of entertainment will be available [on board] and the customer can start to make their own playlist based on that content. That playlist will then be already waiting for them and can be streamed through the IFE to their individual seat or personal device. That’s reasonably straightforward technically,” Arnold said.

Connectivity can also be used by passengers to order drinks or duty-free on board, while Virgin crews, like those on several other airlines, are being issued with their own tablets loaded with passenger information so they can provide more personalized service.

Virgin Atlantic does not charge for live TV, but does levy a fee for onboard Wi-Fi. 

“Take-up has been very good,” Arnold said. “We make sure we price it appropriately. There are a number of options—for one hour or the duration of the flight, for example.”

Off the aircraft, Virgin Atlantic has taken a cautious approach to passenger connectivity. “There are relevant times to push offers at customers. That tends to be when they’ve bought a ticket and there are opportunities [for them] to buy additional things,” Arnold explained.

“Your travel app helps you get to the airport, through check-in and security. That journey tended to stop when passengers got on board the aircraft. Connectivity enables us to continue the conversation with the customer when they’re on board and at their destination.”

To be effective, however, connectivity must be relevant. “We’re very, very selective in the messages we send to customers,” Arnold said.

No chatting

One aspect of connectivity that has not proved successful is the ability for passengers to make inflight telephone calls. “We do offer voice calls on some of our flights, but … very few people have used them. People prefer to use texts or emails to keep in touch during a flight,” Arnold noted. This usually takes the form of uploading photographs to their social media page while airborne. 

Lufthansa has similarly found poor demand for voice calls. Feedback from customers has told the German flag carrier that most passengers do not want the facility to be available. Passengers fear being trapped next to a traveler who talks on the phone for the most of the flight.

However, even those people who might want to talk on the phone tend to pass up the opportunity because they do not want their neighbors to overhear their conversations, Lufthansa spokesman Boris Ogursky said.

With the Lufthansa app and Bluetooth, a passenger walking through an airport terminal before a flight can be offered lounge access if it is available. At the end of a flight, when passengers switch their mobile phone back on, it will tell them on which carousel they can find their baggage. 

Lufthansa has had onboard connectivity on its long-haul flights for some years and plans to introduce it on short-haul European services later this year. 

The service is not free, but is available virtually worldwide and is very popular, Ogursky said. Passengers can buy access for varying durations, with a maximum cost of €20 ($22).