No phone or laptop? Virgin America to add Wi-Fi to seat-back displays

Virgin America was the first U.S. airline to add the option of in-flight Wi-Fi, a handy feature to be able to work online or check Twitter if you had a smartphone, tablet or laptop with you. Now the tech-savvy airline is taking it up a notch by announcing its plans to make some Wi-Fi connectivity available through a new in-flight entertainment system. It’s not coming out until next year, but this is great news for owners of feature phones or those who travel without gadgets but still want to get online during a flight.

Virgin is going to upgrade the current Red in-flight entertainment system with help from a product built by Lufthansa, the airline said on Tuesday at an industry conference in Seattle. The new system will be “entirely interactive, connective and entertaining” and will “have content and services offered both via the seat-back system and guests’ personal electronic devices,” according to Virgin. The announcement is low on specifics, but it adds that there will be an option for passengers to connect their own devices to this new in-flight platform.

It does sound like the seat-back systems will be connected to the web but in a limited fashion. A company spokesperson said there should be “some Wi-Fi connectivity” in the seat-back system, including access to social media apps — which, if we had to guess, sounds like it could include at least the ability to check Facebook and/or Twitter from your seat back but maybe not free access to any website.

The airline says that the Wi-Fi option available to passengers who bring their own Wi-Fi-ready gadgets is already popular and “regularly sees up to one-third of guests on flights logged on.” And that’s a service they have to pay for. So it stands to reason that plenty of people will be interested in logging on, even if it’s limited, and especially if it’s free.