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How Virgin Atlantic’s miserly Wi-Fi ‘fair usage’ policy made flying even more miserable

OPINION: Flying transatlantic is enough of an ordeal without the cheapskate Wi-Fi policies from Virgin Atlantic, the Fagin of the skies.

Technology is amazing, isn’t it? You can be 40,000 feet above an ocean and keep up with the unfolding drama of the Tory leadership contest via live online reporting and social media, before finally opening the emergency door and blissfully flinging yourself into the abyss without a parachute.

All joking aside, as a frequent transatlantic flyer, I’m so grateful for in-flight Wi-Fi. I can continue working, in most cases, with a few minor drawbacks that I can get around. On rare occasions, I’ve been able to muster enough bandwidth to stream some live sports events I just didn’t want to miss.

However, yesterday’s experience with Virgin Atlantic’s flight from Heathrow to Miami proved just how far we have to go. For this flight, the airline’s Wi-Fi Max plan is advertised as the ability to take the office with you on the plane. It costs £29.99 and offers you “whole flight” access. 

That’s really quite expensive and the prices seem to be going up and up (I usually pay £20-£25 at most) lately.

For some people, £30 is the price of a month of high-speed home broadband. However, this a specialty service and a necessary evil at times. It means I don’t waste more annual leave on travel days. Might as well work, despite having to keep your elbows pinned to your sides in the ‘jabroni class’ seats. What else is there to do?

That’s all well and good until the airline’s Fair Usage Policy kicks in. For the £30 Wi-Fi Max package, it’s just 500MB. Half a gig to last approximately nine hours of your “whole flight.” If you pay £3 for the Messaging tariff, you get 20MB. That’s what you call an Unfair Usage Policy, mates. I nearly choked on my afternoon High Tea!

I began my news shift for Trusted Reviews on Tuesday knowing I’d have to ration that data like it was World War 2 tinned pilchards to make it through. After an hour I’m down to 350MB and getting worried. I was an in-flight Oliver Twist, begging the airline: “Please Sir, can I have some more?”

Virgin Atlantic Economy

I didn’t stream any videos and I wasn’t browsing data-heavy social media. I was only accessing email, browsing my RSS feed and company blogs, before writing and uploading tech news with the odd image.

I made it through, just about. I hit publish on my final story of the shift as the meter ticked to zero. You’d think you’d get another 50MB on the house to tie up the loose ends? No, the moment your whole flight allowance expires, you’re invited to buy another pass beyond your whole flight Wi-Fi. Had I been working a full day, accessing everything I needed, I could easily have spent £120 on a miserly 2GB of data, like it was 2007.

I’ve never been capped by an airline in this way before and am furious about it. Usually, if you buy whole flight Wi-Fi, that’s what you get. The only way Virgin’s policy is suitable for ‘taking the office with you’ is if you work in HR and literally don’t do anything but make other people’s lives harder. I could just walk around the plane launching pointless investigations into people’s seat back position and socks-off choices.

It’s unacceptable for Virgin Atlantic and its partner Panasonic Avionics to haul people over the coals like this. In-flight Wi-Fi is practically ubiquitous on longer flights these days, yet the value offered by the service is going down. 

The speeds maxed out at about 5Mbps, the connection didn’t support Slack, meaning I wasn’t able to access important news gathering tools, or communicate with my team. If you use a messaging service, images and videos aren’t supported.

Considering the Virgin Group also owns a broadband and mobile empire in the UK, which prioritises high speed and unlimited data use, it should absolutely know better than to rip people off like this.

It’s unfair on travellers who need to fulfil their obligations while in the air, who have no choice but to spend most of their day’s earnings on accessing the internet.

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