Let’s see; Tux – check. Tails – check. Body Glove wetsuit – huh?

Airline CEO’s often participate in PR events surrounding airline happenings but few could match the panache and daring of the amazing Sir Richard Branson. For the record, here is an exclusive photo of his attire during a recent stunt at the 10 year Anniversary of Virgin Atlantic Airway’s UK-Las Vegas route. Incidentally, it now ranks fourth in revenue generation for Virgin’s route system. We wanted to show our readers “the man” in preparation for his jet ski ride (and dumping) around the famous fountain of the Bellagio Hotel on the Las Vegas strip. Interestingly, and somewhat alarmingly, like other Sir Richard PR stunts, his only concern prior to launching was where the jet ski throttle was located. We suspect that is most like his style of working…and living. In his autobiography, he said it better than we could, “My interest in life comes from setting myself huge, apparently unachievable challenges and trying to rise above them…from the perspective of wanting to live life to the full, I felt that I had to attempt it.”

As a risk taker, Branson is second to none. While he had to sell his beloved Virgin Record label to EMI for 500 million pounds, it kept him in the airline business. Certainly, we all now know the future of retail record stores. Good bet or good luck? You be the judge. We also should mention risk to his person with his balloon forays and stunts, which include jumping off buildings and scraping his posterior! We truly believe this guy lives a charmed life – some of it his making and some from a higher source.

But the press antics, why do it? For one, it sells the airline. How many tickets is that worth? Probably not as many as the airline would like, but having said that we remember back in the recesses of our work experience, a Boeing researcher once noted that the airline name was fourth in the order of factors in most ticket purchases. Having noted the relative importance of airline “name” in the equation, we should also point out that all things being equal, it then may have a much greater value. Tying his name, title, and manner to the airline is worthwhile, primarily if the easygoing, fun loving demeanor is also imprinted on the airline. You have only to look at the cabin crew antics of Southwest Airlines to see the value in “FUN”. Besides, we bet most travelers queried could not name the CEO of the airline they travel…with the exception of Virgin. Sir Richard is the first airline CEO IFExpress has ever written about and a plug here for the addition of Panasonic hardware is justified. In his press conference, Sir Richard extolled the value of connectivity and the future of connected entertainment. It goes without saying that Virgin will be an early adopter of the Panasonic TV and Internet solutions. You can take that to the bank.

Sadly, we suspect, he can’t go on like this forever. Time and biology limits the human condition and we guess that Sir Richard will need to reign in the physical and bring on the metaphysical. There are a lot of eco and humanitarian efforts that deserve more of Branson’s focus. We suspect he will be an early space traveler (for the airline’s sake); however, the world needs a lot of attention at the “people” level and perhaps it is time for Virgin Earth. Sir Richard, your mother is calling.

If you heard about the mayhem in the famous Bellagio fountain last week, the image of Sir Richard Branson riding, or dumping, a jet ski in the water in Las Vegas is probably permanently etched in your brain. The event honored the 10 year anniversary of Virgin Atlantic’s non-stop flight service to Mcarran airport from the UK. As he usually does, Virgin’s Sir Richard, prompted a stunt to mark the event and we will give you some coverage of that madness next issue. The Virgin investment of $2 Billion in new planes and new service from Manchester airport, as well as, the 10th anniversary of the service to Las Vegas, were reason enough for the celebration.

The IFE story belongs to Panasonic because of the $70 Million invested by Virgin in the Panasonic eX2 and eXPhone System (via AeroMobile) on 10 new A330’s. The aircraft begin delivery next February, and initially, the hardware will be installed via retrofit. However, Virgin is pressing both Boeing (B747) and Airbus (A330) for future line fit (TC’d) solutions. The news conference last week (shown above) brought together Virgin’s Sir Richard Branson – President, Steve Ridgeway – CEO, Greg Dawson – Director Communications together with Panasonic’s Charles Oglivie – Executive Director, and Rossi Ralenkotter – President Las Vegas Convention and Visitor Authority.

Obviously excited over the fact that the Las Vegas destination was fourth on VA’s revenue generation destination list, he was very enthusiastic about the Panasonic system. Said Sir Richard, “The possibilities now are unlimited. We want mobile phones to be on silent, but there will be light alerts at the passenger’s seat when a call comes in. We might eventually establish silent zones if need be but we’ll see how things go. This means the business men and women will never be out of touch. Our train riders can add four work hours to their work day when traveling with us by rail. It will be no different in the air.” IFExpress talked to the VA and Panasonic representatives and it was clear that the new non-stop A330’s that will fly from the UK to Las Vegas are an important part of both the Las Vegas growth plan and the future of Virgin Atlantic.

The “take-away” here is that Panasonic is actively engaged with Virgin Atlantic today to bring their whole suite of phone-TV-Internet services to the aircraft – initially via Inmarsat and eventually via their broadband network. Paul Margis told IFExpress that they presently have consigned Ku-Band transponders in their network that cover the world routes and planes are operating with the capability today. It is obvious that Sir Richard is a fan of technology as he noted passenger preference for using connected devices; “Passengers will be able to email, make phone calls, use their iPhones to talk and text message.” Virgin Atlantic’s existing fleet of of 33 wide-body aircraft have to look pretty good to Panasonic and we expect that the negotiations are underway to upgrade their whole fleet. Time will tell.

Editor’s Note: Be sure to check out the Aeromobile release in this issue of IFExpress and here is more about Panasonic and Virgin Atlantic as well as the latest release from Panasonic.

June 16, 2010 – Aeromobile, the world’s leading provider of in-flight mobile communications for passengers, is providing its award-winning service to Virgin Atlantic’s newest aircraft.

Virgin’s new fleet of 10 Airbus A330s, which will come into service early next year, will initally be installed with AeroMobile technology post-aircraft delivery

It will enable Virgin Atlantic’s passengers to make calls and send text messages or email from 35,000 feet and they will join the more than 2.4 million air travellers who have already used the AeroMobile services since its launch in April 2008 – the first time it was commercially available.

Bjorn-Taale Sandberg CEO of AeroMobile said ‘This milestone announcement with Virgin Atlantic underlines our position as the most successful in-flight GSM service in the market today. The majority of Airbus aircraft in service today with in-flight cellular connectivity are served by AeroMobile ‘

“As ground-breaking innovators who put passenger experience at the forefront of what we do, Virgin Atlantic and AeroMobile make for perfect partners.

“We are proud that Virgin Atlantic has chosen us for their next big step into the future of in-flight passenger experience. We are both used to pushing the boundaries on behalf of our customers so it’s a great breakthrough for us.

“We are now achieving real scale for our business, underlining that our technology is now recognised by both passengers and airlines is a ‘must have’.”

AeroMobile’s service on Virgin’s incoming fleet is delivered through eXPhone and forms part of Panasonic Avionics’ eX2 IFEC platform. Virgin Atlantic is one of the first European carriers to adopt this technology. The eXPhone system will initially be operating over Inmarsat Swiftbroadband and fully supports Virgin Atlantic’s desire to move towards full connectivity with Panasonic Avionics on future aircraft.

Have you ever wondered what all the MPEG4 settings mean? With names like Video Input (Interlaced/Progressive), Field Order (TFF-BFF), Pixel accuracy, Slice, and about 20 others, what’s a technologist to do? Well, the next WAEA Tech Committee meeting is for you. Michael Childers and Mark Thompson are said to be preparing a session on MPEG4 settings to educate WAEA members up to a “level playing field” such that the TC can ultimately make an informed decision on whether it’s worth it to standardize on any settings for IFE. Accordingly, if you have ever mused over the use of Wave Division Multiplexing (WDM) for IFE (The use of multiple wavelengths of light to multiply the channels available over a single fiber optic cable) this meeting is also for you.  Without a doubt, the industry has been moving rapidly to get things standardized in preparation for the use of fiber in IFE and avionics in general. Further, Dan Martinec will be leading a session to describe the requirements document that has been prepared while others will present their technology and products for use in airborne fiber systems. He plans to bring folks up-to-speed on the WDM LAN work that AEEC is doing which should be interesting too. Additionally, if you are interested in the latest happenings in the world of onboard connectivity, David Coiley has a panel of presenters prepared to give a view of what’s currently flying and trialed. They will address some of the long misunderstood issues about satellite and air-to-ground systems (like latency, etc.). This is a session designed to help airlines and suppliers alike understand the state-of-the-art in airborne connectivity. Throw in a few other sessions like Best Practices for IFE and Closed Captioning, and this meeting is shaping up to be one not to be missed. Plus, insiders tell us that pre-registration is at an all-time high (read networking opportunity!).   Take a look at the upcoming WAEA TC agenda (February 24-25) at www.waea.org – and if you can’t get out of the office for two days you can register to attend via real-time webcast – you can’t beat that!  

Next, we have secured a special website for our readers with incredible space graphics from the AGI folks. It links to the best graphic depiction of the satcom Iridium-Cosmos collision over Russia – bar none. www.agi.com/iridium-cosmos. For more information contact sclaypoole@agi.com . 

Did you watch the Sir Richard Branson video on AirCell? We asked Brenda Chroniak (AirCell PR) about the system capability to send video and she noted; “For a bit more detail, what I meant by the system being designed to scale is that Aircell has a proprietary compression technology that substantially enhances the throughput on the network. Handling 30, 40 or 50 passenger sessions on a flight – or a live TV broadcast – are well within its capabilities. Though compression techniques are fairly widespread in the Wi-Fi world, Aircell’s was built-in as a fundamental part of the network. AirCell knew the demand that was coming when they developed the system, and it’s certainly paying off, as demand has been higher than expected.” Here are the links:

Now, with regard to the recent wildfires in the Melbourne, Australia, we asked long IFE’er Ron Chapman (ASIQ) to chime in on their status and he wrote: “Dear IFExpress Readers: We are OK, The fires were coming in our direction and about 8K away when the wind changed and sent it north up to the mountains. Major disaster up there! The wind change happened so fast no one in the path had a chance. It was 48.5 degrees at my place and blowing a gale. Week before we had three days at 44+ degrees. Everyone knows friends that lost homes and unfortunately some did not survive. We are still waiting to hear – they say it might be high as 300 and the fires are still going. We are used to bush fires but this was a firestorm that no one could imagine. What is uplifting is the way the community is pulling together. That’s life in the bush, Ron”  

Lastly, we are working on a big airframe expose story that will blow your mind….Stay Tuned!

Image courtesy of Analytical Graphics, Inc. (www.agi.com