Virgin America planning for Wi-Fi in the sky 

Virgin America, in another attempt to become the airline of choice for the tech-savvy, hopes to be the first carrier to offer broadband Internet service in its cabins.

The Burlingame-based airline, which started running flights out of its San Francisco International Airport hub last month, announced Thursday that it is partnering with AirCell in an effort to bring Web service to fliers sometime in 2008, either through the airline’s entertainment system or via wireless connection. American Airlines also plans to test broadband service next year.

Seat-to-seat instant messaging is already offered on Virgin America flights, and Charles Ogilvie, Virgin America’s director of in-flight entertainment and partnerships, said a broadband connection would enhance the flying experience, especially for a flying population known to grow anxious when away from the Internet too long.

"Whether it’s IMing [instant messaging] with your friends, updating your blog, getting a stock quote, sending photos from your trip to friends, watching a movie or sending a work e-mail, we plan to make it all available on a Virgin America plane," Ogilvie said in a statement.

The broadband access would be made available through specialized cell sites on the ground that would link with aircraft. Company officials said they do not yet have a pricing structure in place.

Virgin’s latest push is part of an overall effort to tap into a ridership looking for modern, stylish surroundings. Adam Wells, Virgin America’s cabin designer, said he took inspiration from some of the best "ground-based entertainment" he could find — clubs, lounges and restaurants — and tried to copy that feeling and style.

The result is cabins that have a lounge feel, with mood lighting and seats designed by companies hired by manufacturers of some of the world’s most expensive cars.

Airlines have been chipping away at the Federal Communications Commission, which has been warming to the idea of Internet and phone use onboard. Some offer some Internet access but not broadband.

Industry officials have said new revenue could stream in if they partner with companies seeking to offer broadband or telephone service cheaper than that offered currently.

tramroop@examiner.com

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