It is hard to get a coherent picture of the progress United Airlines has made installing wifi on their fleet. Despite lofty promises and more than a couple stumbling blocks along the way the carrier is much further along in the deployment process than the public details seem to show. And the company’s (all too infrequent) public statements on the progress have been interesting, to say the least.
Some internal company documentation, updated earlier this week, suggests that 233 planes now have wifi installed. The bulk of these are the A319 and A320s deployed with the Panasonic-based system and tracking them has proven reasonably easy as the company updates the fleet details as they are converted. For the 737s and 777s, however, the details are far less clear. Would you believe, for example, that there are more 777s flying around today with the wifi system than there are 737s? That might be hard to process given that only one 777 has the kit operational compared to eight in service with the 737s, but it is true. There are 27 777s flying with the hardware on board compared to only 22 737s carrying the kit. This data also suggest that the public statement last week that “at least 10” planes in the 737 fleet were active is incorrect; only eight are showing active in their records.
Here are the latest details according to United’s internal data:
The streaming system was a key component for the 777-200s as they were retrofit for service to Hawaii so it is not too surprising to see that part of the implementation active. Given that it has been deployed successfully on the 777s it is a bit surprising that other aircraft do not have it active. The same internal status update which provided the above details suggests that the Airbus fleet will see the streaming enabled in Q2 ’14. No word on an exact date or why the delay, but that’s a reasonable target for expectations at this point.
It is possible that the activation has been delayed due to reliability issues with the systems deployed so far. The system worked on the one equipped flight I’ve had but other passengers have reported issues with the system not being available or unable to link up with the satellite on many occasions, far too many for the company to legitimately be satisfied with the reliability. And if the problems are software related then having the hardware installed on the planes means rapid activation once the bugs are worked out.
At the same time, however, it must be challenging from the marketing side. United was the last major carrier in the USA to commit to a wifi deployment for their fleet. In some ways that delay helped, allowing them to roll out a second generation system with arguably better performance, costs and coverage. But that only counts if they can get the kit installed and active for users in a functional manner. Promising to equip a plane a day sounds great, but when you’re flying 35+ aircraft around and calling them “equipped” but not making the service available to passengers that can lead to disappointment. And while the fleet status pages don’t suggest that the planes are done other statements by the company could be construed as such.
It is also possible that United is seeing the relative performance of the Ku-band systems (Airbus, 777s) and the Ka-band systems (737s) and has decided to shift some of their Ku deployments to the Ka side. This should offer additional bandwidth to each aircraft at lower prices but it also won’t be widely available on the Panasonic platform until late in 2015; the first test aircraft are still a year away. While the current deployment pace means there are still 300+ aircraft to equip nearly 200 of those are already scheduled for the Ka service from Excede/LiveTV. And pausing deployment for the other 100ish doesn’t make a lot of sense given the customer promises the carrier has made so far. Plus switching to the LiveTV version would cut the coverage area dramatically. Not a huge deal for the Airbus portion of the fleet which typically stays close to home in the USA but those are already nearly done so any changes there would be a (likely costly) retrofit.
United was late to get on the wifi bandwagon. And they’re taking an interesting approach now that they’re finally trying. While it certainly is not clear that this is affecting their passenger booking numbers one way or the other it does remain a curious scenario to watch. The uncertainly of the in-flight passenger experience certainly has not gone unnoticed by travelers. Hard to believe that’s good for the airline.
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