How the iPhone 5 is ruining the travel experience

As a traveler there are plenty of things to love about the new iPhone 5. The PassBook application and LTE support are two significant improvements which will benefit travelers around the globe. But there is one rather enormous change which will make things quite difficult on travelers. Maybe not completely ruining the experience but certainly a significant negative impact. And I’m not talking about the new maps.

The problem comes in the form of the new “Lightning” connector on the iPhone 5. The new interface is thinner, smaller and more resilient than the old one, but that doesn’t make it a winner for everyone. After all, there is a huge inventory of devices out there which have the legacy interface already. And while there are adapters to convert from the 30-pin plug of pervious models to the Lightning plug, even those can cause issues. Folks getting on an airplane or checking into a hotel are going to see a number of issues with these plugs.

For hotel guests (and operators), the main issue will be with the alarm clocks in rooms. With five million devices confirmed sold already it won’t be long before guests are showing up with the new models in reasonable numbers and expecting to use the bed-side systems like they have become accustomed to in recent years. As industry analyst Henry Harteveldt puts it, “Hotels, unfortunately, have no choice but to explore their options to buy adapters.” Of course, the customers likely have a number of other devices at home so they’ll be investing in adapters anyways, but hotels may be inclined to have at least some available for guests, similar to plug adapters available in many properties for foreign guests.

The hotels have it easy, relatively speaking. They don’t have to deal with FAA certification of electronics in their rooms the way airlines do on board their aircraft. Airlines and in-flight entertainment manufacturers are facing a much more significant challenge. Putting aside the physical dimensions which are different and the impact that will have on a number of carriers and the “fitted” systems installed to cradle the phones which now won’t work at all, there are bigger issues afoot.

It isn’t just that the IFE providers would need to recertify their hardware, going through the FAA processes and getting the airlines to take planes out of service to handle the testing. There’s also the fact that the current version of the Lightning connector doesn’t support the same set of features. Notably missing: video output. This passengers used to plugging in and watching their videos on the big screen at their set will be shut out. VGA and HDMI to Lightning connectors will be available eventually but in-flight systems don’t offer those inputs. Even when those connectors come out iPhone 5 customers are still not going to be able to watch their content on the in-seat screen.

And, that’s not the end of the story. According to Gizmodo there is a very real chance that the Lightning connector cables have an authentication chip embedded in the cable. Such authentication has been required in the past for video out activity because of the DRM involved but never just for syncing and powering the device. The full details are still unfolding on this but it doesn’t look good. At least this issue is addressed just by paying a few extra dollars for the name-brand cabling.

These are probably more like annoyances than events which will actually ruin the experience. Still, they’re pretty annoying for customer and even worse for the hotel and airline operators and IFE providers who are now looking significant costs to retrofit their systems.

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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.


  1. Did you honestly think that the connector would stay the same forever? Ever heard of SCSI? Back in the late 80s when it started getting phased out every computer user screamed, “Oh no! What shall we do without our SCSI devices?”

    Apple had to make the change at some time. They could not make the phone thinner and lighter with the original connector.

    Get over it!

  2. The issue isn’t that the connecter changed. The issue is that it isn’t backwards compatible with the previous format rendering many docking devices useless. When Super VHS came out you could play the tapes (at normal resolution on an older VHS machine) When DVD players came outpart of the agreed upon standard was that they would play CD’s. Similarly, when Blu-ray came out part of the agreed upon standard was that they would play DVD/s. Apple wouldn’t have this issue if they would stick with an industry standard connector instead of making a propietary one up for their device. Don’t get me wrong I’m an apple fan and user BTW.

  3. As long as Apple makes available its tech then someone like Belkin will come along to help out. There’s always a vendor for that, and they’re usually fast to market.

    But I’ll just continue to stay away from Apple.

  4. Just one of the many reasons that I will never use or buy an Apple product again (my last was an ipod about 7 years ago). There is no problem with the USB standard that everyone else uses, yet Apple insists on making another proprietary connector just because they can.

  5. What really puzzles me is that apple didn’t implement the standard usb connector the industry recently agreed upon (with some arm twisting by the regulators) that will do away with the various chargers starting 201x. This blatant abuse of market share is scary.

  6. Guys, after reading this, I’m finaly glad I have a Blackberry 🙂 No compatible alarm clocks, no compatible IFE = no surprises, no worries, no problems ! 🙂

    1. Sure, matt, the problem is the proprietary connector. And, unlike pretty much every other platform out there, Apple has continued down that path.

      It isn’t just about the alarm clock, Tony. Actually, that’s a much smaller issue to me. Airlines and hotels have invested millions upon millions of dollars in the hardware to support these devices. They’ve advertised to their customers that they have support for them. And now Apple has move the goal posts on them dramatically. That’s a tough pill to swallow and the customers aren’t going to want to hear about how it isn’t the airline’s fault that Apple changed the standard.

      And the issues, Jeff, are with the fact that the phone won’t necessarily fit and that the new cable doesn’t support video now, not necessarily that they switched from 30-pin to Lightning.

      Of course the connector can change over time. The disappointing part is that it was changed to something else proprietary rather than the industry standard. And that it changed to a format which offers less functionality than the legacy version. That’s two questionable decisions IMO.

  7. Is this really that big of a deal? Who actually relies solely on the hotel alarm clock? I always bring my own cable because you never know where/when you’ll need it.

  8. as everyone else has already said…another reason why the iphone SUCKS!!!!! I can’t believe someone as techie as you would use an iFail!! tsk tsk

  9. Which carriers have the 30 pin iPod connections? Never seen it. Seen several with USB ports for charging or power. The iPhone 5 cable will still work in those cases.

    It is a problem for auto manufacturers that had the dock connection as opposed to just the USB port.

  10. It’s interesting how these half(non)-issues emerge with every iteration of the iPhone, and soon die their slow death as demand surges. With every new technology there are some drawbacks, but the positives of the iPhone far outweigh the maps and the connector “bumps on the road”.

  11. This problem is quite easily solved by using any solution that uses standard, non-proprietary connectors – ie. virtually any Android phone or tablet, Blackberry, or Windows Phone.

    When you buy into the Apple ecosystem, you are paying a price premium for life, while the rest of the world overtakes you in price, performance and end-user experience. You are being gouged but most of you are either too invested in the Apple ecosystem (owning iphone, ipad, apple tv, mac, etc) or too proud to change directions.

  12. @AS: None of the above. It is just hard to go from a top quality to an inferior product just because of maps or a connector.

  13. top quality? are you serious?? apple is behind on the times with the 5. this is what the 4s should have been.

  14. Just wanted to point out the passbook app is not an iPhone 5 product, but part of iOS 6. That means, if you have an iPhone 4S, 4, 3gs, etc and upgrade it to iOS 6, you will get the passbook. Fair warning, you’ll also get Apple Maps, so its a trade off!!

  15. Seth the only reason a iPhone won’t fit is if an airline/IFE mfg implemented a thirty pin cradle of some sort like auto mfgs have in some cases. Is there a system flying today with that? Only ever seen the USB port on a plane.

    The current iPhone 4S cable will not video out unless you get the one with the 3 RCA jacks or equivalent plus USB. Apple will also come out with them for the 5. The system that Singapore Airlines uses is like that (at least on the planes going from lax and sfo). Maybe it should have been included into the new interface but is not a reduced capability.

    Apple may regret the decision to ignore the std but given how many items embrace their interface today in spite of the std may have convinced them they can still go their own way.

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