American to launch streaming media service in-flight

American Airlines announced this week that they are extending their partnership with in-flight internet provider Aircell, the company behind the gogo service. There are two main components to the announcement, one covering internet connectivity and the other addressing streaming media. On the internet front the company has committed to expanding their gogo deployment to cover more than 140 additional aircraft in domestic service. The streaming media offering, however, is an industry first.

The service will leverage the wifi network that the gogo service currently operates on and will provide access to movies and TV shows via a locally cached copy that resides in the airplane. Users will access the media through their own wireless devices rather than through in-seat or overhead screens on the aircraft. This move is essentially a bet that in-flight entertainment is now no longer dependent on the screen that the airline can provide and instead focused on the content which can be delivered on any screen that the customer might happen to have with them. By focusing on the content rather than the delivery mechanism the company can offer greater content variety while keeping both the weight and costs of the system down.

One challenge that American will face with this approach is that many consumer devices will need power to stream the media for the duration of a flight and, to date, the carrier has only had limited power outlet distribution through their aircraft. The first planes to have the streaming service are 767-200s used on transcon routes and they do have power so that should help, at least initially.

On the wifi deployment side of the game, American announced that they will be deploying the gogo service on 93 of the company’s 757 aircraft as well as 50 more MD-80 series planes. The installation will start this summer and is in addition to the previously announced plans to fit all of the carrier’s 737-800s with the service. By pursuing the fitting of essentially their entire domestic fleet American has joined Delta, Virgin America, AirTran and Southwest in the plan to offer wifi on all domestic flights.

Of course, all the wifi deployment is only useful to the airlines if it actually makes them money, and thus far evidence suggests that still isn’t happening. Recent reports are still noting that wifi adoption rates are hovering in the 5-10% range, depending on the report. Those reports are also suggesting that the demand for screens still outweighs the demand for wifi, though the numbers are shifting in the favor of wifi. Only time will tell if having the early deployment of the connectivity will provide the airlines with a benefit versus the later adopters, notably JetBlue and Continental/United Airlines which are banking on Ka-band satellite services rather than the cellular or Ku-band options currently available via gogo or Row44, respectively.

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Seth Miller

I'm Seth, also known as the Wandering Aramean. I was bit by the travel bug 30 years ago and there's no sign of a cure. I fly ~200,000 miles annually; these are my stories. You can connect with me on Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn.