“Raise your laptops in the sky!” the announcer booms over the airplane loudspeaker. “Higher, higher, higher! Show us what you like!” Flashes wink as dozens of laptops rise in one swooping motion toward the cameras. This is Virgin America's in-the-clouds blowout bash to kick off its Gogo inflight wi-fi service—if the term “blowout bash” can be applied to a venue featuring oxygen masks and three-across seats bolted to the floor. Various YouTube personalities and a gaggle of press are on hand, squeezing their way up and down the aisles. (Rumor has it that Perez Hilton was supposed to be here, but he's MIA.)
Virgin's Gogo launch comes courtesy of some pretty hefty infrastructure upgrades. Virgin is collaborating with telecommunications company Aircell, which has put up a network of radio towers all over the United States that send out high-bandwidth signals. Three antennas on Virgin's planes (one on top, two underneath) pick up the signals and route them to the passenger cabin. I hit a small snag trying to redeem my promotion code as I sign in, but I'm soon able to blitz through a succession of my favorite sites—CNN, New York Times, Google Reader—and update my Facebook status. “Everything just works!” I hear the guy in the row behind me exclaim. “Hi, Mom,” someone else yells into his laptop mic. “It's me. I'm on a plane! I'm using the Internet!” Long-legged flight attendants pass out Karma Champagne cocktails to lubricate any technical snafus that crop up.
Virgin's not the first carrier to dabble in the world of in-air wireless. American Airlines and Jet Blue have already rolled out limited trials of in-flight broadband. But Virgin is the first airline to commit itself full throttle to on-board wi-fi—all 28 planes in Virgin's fleet will feature the service by the second quarter of 2009. Like so many in-flight trimmings these days, Gogo's not free: Virgin will be charging passengers $9.95 to use the service on flights up to three hours and $12.95 on longer ones. Still, that's little more than what you'd pay at your typical earthbound airport lounge—and the pending revenue boost from in-flight wi-fi might be just what the deep-sixed airline industry needs. $15 for your first checked bag stings, but an extra few hours of productivity while you're 35,000 feet up? Priceless.