Many passengers will say that in-flight entertainment and internet services are important to the overall travel experience, but it is not all that common to hear an airline executive be particularly blunt about the shortcomings that carrier sees in the offerings available. Thanks to Alaska Airlines we’ve got at least one version of that view, with some pretty fun comments, too. The main takeaway is that the carrier is decidedly unsatisfied with what they have so far and that they’re moving towards improvements. But the overall of how they’re getting there is interesting.
Two main components come into play with the news. The first is that Alaska Airlines is going to be adding streaming media services on board their aircraft. These media servers are the backbone of the bring-your-own-device (BYOD) movement of in-flight entertainment and seem to be only growing in popularity. United Airlines has already committed to offering only BYOD for most short-haul/domestic flying over the next few years while American Airlines, Delta and US Airways are offering customers on some flights a comparable product via the Gogo Vision platform. So why isn’t Alaska Airlines going with Gogo Vision? That’s not entirely clear, but the quotes given CEO Brad Tilden earlier this week suggest that it is another vendor providing that service.
The other factor in the connectivity space is with the internet offering. Alaska Airlines was an early tester of the Row44 product which seemed to make a lot of sense for the carrier given the number of flights they have which were not or are not covered by Gogo’s terrestrial network. Things have improved a bit on that front as Gogo has added towers in Canada but there are still plenty of flights – mostly to Hawaii – where the service won’t fly. Satellite services offer potential for better coverage in those markets but Alaska was not quite sold on the Row44 offering the first time around. But that doesn’t mean they’ve written off the product. According to Tilden:
We did try Row 44. We had some issues with that. I bet we go back at some point. We want the technology to mature a little more before we do.
It is not clear if he means that going back will necessarily be to Row44 or to satellite-based systems in general or just to reevaluate all the options at some point in the future. But Tilden did make it reasonably clear that he doesn’t really think the Gogo service is sufficient for consumers, “We’ve got GoGo for email, which is not great.”
That’s a pretty aggressive statement, though it is also reasonably easy to believe given the bandwidth limitations in place and the number of Alaska’s flights which are on the west coast in a relatively densely flown market. That makes the competition for speed harder as passengers on the planes are vying to share the same bandwidth and also the planes in the same area are competing for coverage from the towers. The part where Tilden apparently only sees the service as viable for email usage, however, is not a good sign at all.
Don’t get me wrong: I like Gogo’s service overall and I think that they have done a great job in pushing the in-flight connectivity industry forward. But I also think that the current implementation – even with ATG4 – is starting to reveal its limits. I haven’t used Row44’s product on Southwest yet (I suppose I need to do that one of these days) but the satellite-based systems seem to have all sorts of potential advantages and just one main limitation which is the latency. And in the couple times I’ve used satellite-based connectivity the latency wasn’t a problem for me, even for remote desktop or VPN applications. The GTO offering may mitigate the problems but with limited air-to-ground bandwidth available it is hard to see things getting a lot faster any time soon.
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