United Airlines customers have been wondering about the state of the on-board wifi system for quite a while now. The carrier was the last major in the United States to commit to a fleet-wide connectivity plan and, even since that commitment, they’ve appeared somewhat slow on the deployment front. There are many reasons for the delays, ranging from FAA-mandated recertifications of radome installs to vendor issues with delivery of the hardware. But the carrier seems to have finally turned a corner in deployments. So, when will we finally see the LiveTV wifi service active on United Airlines‘ 737s? The company isn’t answering that question yet. But there are some other interesting bits they were willing to confirm.
The Panasonic Ku-band satellite system is now installed on more than 100 Airbus A320 family planes as well as the majority of the 747-400 fleet. Some users have expressed frustration with the service, whether for not actually working when advertised on the plane, login/portal issues or uplink/connectivity troubles once authenticated. Panasonic recently inked a deal to increase capacity by 50% which should help alleviate some of the troubles, but it is still a long way from perfect.
And what about the LiveTV Ka-band system for the 737 family? The service is new – LiveTV is the first to provide Ka-band connectivity to commercial aircraft – and some delays in the implementation could reasonably be expected. JetBlue (parent company of LiveTV) was the launch customer for the platform, branded Fly-Fi for their fleet. They ran tests for nearly 3 months before turning the service on for customers. Today it is installed on five JetBlue aircraft. United’s install is on a different aircraft type so that requires a separate Supplemental Type Certificate from the FAA, but that STC was issued on 20 September 2013 (and reissued on 17 January 2014), only a couple weeks after the JetBlue STC.
So where are all the United/LiveTV wifi planes? Would you believe that some are flying around today, with the kit installed but not yet turned on for customer use?
United currently has “about half-a-dozen 737s that have completed Wi-Fi installation, but are not yet active” according to a company spokesperson. The hardware installs continue “at a fast pace” while the testing continues prior to activation. JetBlue similarly was cautious about testing the service before “flipping the switch” but they’re now up and running and it is the same hardware. For United, however, the process is not quite there. The company says they are “…[C]ontinuing network testing with installed aircraft, and have more testing to complete to make sure the system is ready to launch.”
United has a contract with NS Aviation of Winston-Salem, NC to perform maintenance on the carrier’s 737-900 fleet. That work includes LiveTV installations, very similar to the work needed to have the Ka-band connectivity installed so there is no reason to believe the installs would not be happening at that facility. And the number of planes which have passed through in recent weeks – many spending 15-30 days in the shop – is not insignificant. Prior to the Ka-band connectivity installs the typical shop visit was shorter, suggesting that the planes making longer visits are seeing additional or different work done. Many of these planes already have the LiveTV/DirecTV video system installed as well as E+ seating and most other things that such a long visit to Smith Reynolds Airport (IATA: INT; ICAO: KINT) would involve. This all suggests that the planes spending more time at NS Aviation are getting the internet hardware installed.
Based on a review of traffic in and out of KINT these are the planes I’m guessing have been fitted with the wifi system so far:
- N37462 entered INT 9 Oct — exited INT 30 Oct
- N75429 entered INT 4 Nov — exited INT 21 Nov
- N75426 entered INT 8 Nov — exited INT 3 Dec
- N38451 entered INT 11 Nov — exited INT 11 Dec
- N37413 entered INT 20 Nov — exited INT 14 Dec
- N75425 entered INT 3 Dec — exited GSO 20 Dec
- N75435 entered INT 4 Dec — exited INT 22 Dec
Again, those are guesses, but the timing makes sense and the number lines up with what United’s press office was willing to acknowledge when I asked.
As for why United is slower in getting the service deployed than JetBlue, it is hard to know for sure. United is not particularly forthcoming with details but I do know that getting the service active requires the airline to provision a portal which sits on top of the LiveTV interface. JetBlue spent a fair amount of time making that happen and it is reasonable to presume that United will need to similarly spend some time to get their portal functional. There are other tweaks and such but most of those should cover all the LiveTV installs, not be airline-specific.
No matter the reason, the delay is a challenge for United and its customers. Hopefully the testing completes soon.
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