Daily Payload

Virgin Atlantic Offer Phone Calls, Text Messaging, and Internet Connections on Their Flights

By: Jenni Conte
May 25, 2012

Richard Branson’s airline Virgin Atlantic is set to be the first airline in the UK to allow its passengers to make in-flight phone calls. The news was announced on May the 14th, and the decision is in response to customer surveys that have indicated staying connected while flying is high on their list of wants. The news has been met with mixed feelings, with some saying allowing phone calls on flights will cause too much noise. On the other hand, business travelers are excited at the prospect of being able to communicate while on long flights.

Virgin Atlantic will initially roll out the service on their London to New York route for which the airline have appointed their new A330 Airbus. The Virgin Atlantic fleet is undergoing a £50 million refurbishment this year, and the airline plans that before the end of 2012 around 20 aircraft from their fleet of Boeing 747’s will be equipped with AeroMobile technology. It is hoped that at least 10 different routes will offer the in-flight phone call service by that time.

Charges and Limitations

The use of mobile devices and internet connections on-board an airplane will no doubt make some passenger’s very happy, but it may not seem quite as good as you think. For starters, the service certainly will not be offered for free, and Virgin Atlantic has already released information on how much they are going to charge for the service.

For people wanting to make calls from their mobile phone while in the air it will cost them a total of £1 a minute, and for sending text messages it will cost 20p per message. This price is by no means extortionate and should be affordable to most passengers, matching most mobile operators roaming charges. In fact, Virgin Atlantic has kept the cost down to further promote the service and get people using it more. European airline Ryanair allowed passengers to make mobile calls back in 2009, but charged a much more expensive £3 a minute for their service.

The limitations of the service is where the main problems lie, and while the technology used can only get better, currently the service is not as powerful as you might think. Currently a maximum of 10 people will be able to use the service at the same time because of the restricted bandwidth available. This is an area of the service that is set to improve, but in a plane of around 300 or more passengers it would seem the queue could get big quickly.

There are also a few more things that hinder the service. No phone calls can be made while the aircraft is taking off or landing, and the service must be turned off 250 miles from Unites States airspace in accordance with American laws.

The AeroMobile Service

Being able to use mobile phones on planes is not an entirely new thing, with Emirates Airlines and Malaysia Airlines among the airlines that currently offer the AeroMobile service. Qantas trialled the technology in 2007, and Emirates was the first to allow its passengers to make in-flight calls back in 2008, but the technology was still in its infancy and took a while to really catch on. With Virgin Atlantic now taking advantage of the updated and refined service that AeroMobile provides, mobile calls, SMS messages, and basic web access are all available to passengers.

The internet access component of the AeroMobile service currently uses GPRS technology, which provided enough speed to check emails and use social media apps, but struggles to stream videos or keep up with online poker sites effectively. World famous poker player Tom "Durrrr" Dwan famously timed out whilst trying to play a hand in first class. AeroMobile are working hard to improve this part of their service, and their integration with the Panasonic group should give them the resources to make fast internet access available.

Will Using Mobile Phones Become Standard on Airlines?

Whether or not Virgin Atlantic’s announcement of its plans to make allowing phone calls on its flights standard spurs on other airlines to follow suit is unclear, but over the five years that AeroMobile have been operating they are steadily increasing their customer base. This year the 10,000,000 mark was reached for the amount of passengers that have connected to their service. With so many people using mobile devices, smartphones, and tablets it seems that the ability to connect in the sky could become much more in demand than it is now.