Why 2017 was the year of inflight Wi-Fi

Following a prolonged ground assault over airport lounges and the aerial battle of business class, 2017 saw inflight Internet become the latest battleground in the dogfight between Qantas and Virgin Australia.

After years of both airlines' executives saying "We're looking at it" and "The technology's not yet ready", Qantas and Virgin Australia each flicked the Wi-Fi switch in April this year.

Passengers are still split over the wisdom of inflight Wi-Fi. Some welcome the ability to turn travel downtime into productive time, others mourn the loss of a rare slice of solitude in this hyperconnected world.

But the more travellers I speak with – especially business travellers – the more often I hear people who've come around to the benefits of staying connected above the clouds.

And, as many in the 'yes' camp attest, "you don't have to log on, you can stay offline if you want to."

With that in mind, here's a look at where we are and what's to come for Qantas and Virgin Australia's inflight Internet services.

Catching a domestic Wi-Fi flight

Qantas is well ahead on the rollout of WiFi-equiped Boeing 737s, with 17 of the jets already upgraded compared to just three from the Virgin Australia fleet.

Both airlines will then sprint to the end of 2018, with Qantas' entire Boeing 737 fleet and the vast majority of Virgin's Boeing 737s kitted out for Christmas.

But what about the bigger twin-aisle Airbus A330s which both airlines generally roster onto the transcontinental east-west routes?

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Qantas will begin to equip its domestic A330s with WiFi in early 2018 and have the entire fleet upgraded by the end of 2018, by which point almost every Qantas flight within Australia will let you stay online from gate to gate.

Despite having a much smaller Airbus A330 fleet, Virgin doesn't plan to start its own A330 overhaul until late 2018, with most of the jets getting Wi-Fi across 2019.

The need for speed

Both the Qantas and Virgin Australia internet systems are delivering 10-15Mbps per passenger – that's as fast as most home broadband connections, and more than enough for streaming HD video on the likes of Netflix.

Qantas will boost connection speeds as well as reliability by installing what it calls 'Generation 2' technology to its Boeing 737s, compared to the Gen1 system of its first Wi-Fi jet.

However, while Qantas has pledged to keep its Wi-Fi free of charge, Virgin Australia has opted for a two-tier model which will kick in from January 1 2018.

Passengers will enjoy a 'standard' connection for free, with the option to pay for a higher-speed service. Virgin is tipped to release its high-speed pricing details later this week. 

International Internet

Qantas isn't expected to add Wi-Fi to its international flights until 2019 at the earliest – even its factory-fresh Boeing 787 Dreamliners are being delivered without the necessary satellite kit.

"We are focusing on the domestic Wi-Fi roll out right now," a Qantas spokesperson tells High Flyer.

"With international flights, we need a product that can overcome a number of technical, performance and coverage challenges."

Virgin Australia aims to steal the march on Qantas with the launch of Wi-Fi on flights to Los Angeles next month and on the busy trans-Tasman routes from early 2018.

Barring any hardware hiccups, two of Virgin's five Boeing 777-300ER jets will offer Internet on flights between Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane and Los Angels by the end of December, initially in a free 'public trial' mode, with all five aircraft upgraded by May 2018.

Wi-Fi will also be available on Virgin's Boeing 737 flights to and from New Zealand, along with Fiji and Bali, from early next year through to September 2018.

Virgin will reveal the pricing options for its international Wi-Fi service in the middle of December.

In short: by this time next year, you'll be able to jump online on almost every domestic Qantas and Virgin Australia flight (and for free), as well as on all Virgin's flights to New Zealand and the USA.

Few people spend more time on planes, in lounges or mulling over the best ways to use frequent flyer points than David Flynn, the editor of Australian Business Traveller magazine. His unparalleled knowledge of all aspects of business travel connects strongly with the interests of Executive Style readers.

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