Virgin Australia is set to offer a basic free Internet service on its domestic aircraft and plans to become the first Australian carrier to offer wi-fi on international flights.
The successful completion of a three-month trial of its wi-fi system on a Boeing 737 will see the airline roll out connectivity to other aircraft in its 737 fleet and start adding it to its international Boeing 777s from October.
It expects to have wi-fi available on the B777s and most of the B737s by the end of 2018 with the A330 fleet expected to join them by the second half of 2019.
The three- month trial saw 77 per cent of Virgin passengers report a high level of satisfaction with the inflight wi-fi, with emails, social media and news the most used services.
Virgin Australia chief executive John Borghetti said wi-fi would ultimately be available on 90 per cent of the airline’s fleet.
The airline is using Gogo’s 2Ku technology linked to Optus satellites, while rival Qantas is using a high-capacity Ka system offered by ViaSat through nbn’s Sky Muster satellite. Qantas plans to have 80 Boeing 737s and Airbus A330s fitted by late 2018, offering it to 15 million passengers a year.
Borghetti said Gogo provided inflight wi-fi to airlines around the world , including Delta Air Lines, Virgin Atlantic, and British Airways.
“Through our partnership with Gogo and Optus Satellite, we will have access to the largest fleet of satellites servicing Australia and New Zealand, providing our guests with a fast and reliable wi-fi experience on board,” he said.
Virgin plans to release more details of its pricing structure shortly and Borghetti said he did not want to pre-empt the announcement.
“All we’ll say at this stage is that it will be a basic free offering for our guests domestically,’’ he said. “But clearly, depending on what the guests want, they can upgrade that to further access.’’
Separately, Australia’s competition regulator on Thursday approved Virgin’s partnership with the HNA Group, Hong Kong Airlines, Hong Kong Express Airways for the next five years, saying it will likely realise significant public benefits.
Virgin has already started five times weekly services between Melbourne and Hong Kong under an interim authorisation while it awaited full approval.
The Australian carrier and Hong Kong Airlines also offer codeshare connectivity to 11 destinations across their flight network and an interline agreement to 10 destinations in mainland China. There is also some reciprocity between the Velocity and Fortune Wings Club frequent flyer programs
It also plans to launch services between Australia and mainland China using existing Airbus A330 aircraft with speculation focusing on Beijing or Shanghai as potential destinations.
The full ACCC authorisation allows them to further advance plans to coordinate their international passenger transport services such as codesharing, frequent flyer program participation, lounge access, route planning, and scheduling.
“The ACCC considers the alliance will likely realise significant public benefits, primarily through supporting the introduction of new services between Australia and mainland China and Hong Kong including by Virgin,” ACCC Commissioner Roger Featherston said in announcing the approval.
The announcement came as Virgin posted a $A186m net loss but revealed earnings at its international arm had nudged its way into the black on an underlying basis.
The alliance with HNA Group is likely to accelerate that improvement.
Virgin boss Borghetti said the full approval meant Virgin could proceed with plans to bring more competition to the market.
“Which is what we’re all about and, frankly, it would be virtually impossible for us to do without the cooperation of HNA and its companies, Hong Kong Airlines and Hong Kong Express,’’ he said.
Borghetti said the airline’s new Hong Kong route had started in “a positive light’’ and was helped by the alliance with the HNA group and its airlines.
“We started the route and we automatically had distribution at the other end in sales capability which clearly showed in the southbound bookings,’’ he said. “So I’m quite happy with the way it’s going and quite optimistic.’’
In addition to Virgin’s planned services to mainland China, the alliance partners also plan to continue to expand their codeshare and interline arrangements and offer passengers further benefits through their loyalty schemes.
These include lounge access, priority check in, priority boarding and additional baggage and the ability to redeem frequent flyer point.