In the world of in-flight connectivity for passengers United Airlines is something of a late bloomer. The carrier was slow in committing to a solution and, while the rollout has been relatively quick of late (United says it is ~2/3 complete on the domestic fleet; I’m working on verifying that number), they still trail Delta Air Lines, American Airlines, Virgin America, US Airways and Southwest each of which has substantially completed its domestic fleet deployment. On the international side, however, United has 30 aircraft configured or in progress right now, a number which places them in the lead amongst that same group of carriers. So, what’s really the plan and is United executing on it or not?
Tarek Abdel-Halim, United Airlines’ managing director of cabin systems, spoke at the Future Travel Experience conference in Las Vegas last week and his view of the company’s progress might not sit so well with some customers. Yes, passenger connectivity is important and the airline is getting there, but for United Airlines passenger connectivity is just a small part of the overall goal. As Abdel-Halim explained, the bigger picture involves making airplane a “node on the network” rather than just using in-flight wifi as an extension of the in-flight entertainment system. Every aspect of the operation can be improved by extending the network to include every aircraft, assuming the company can get there. But there are many challenges between here and there.
Beyond [personalized service] it is evaluating where we can gain efficiencies. It is not easy by any means. I don’t think that traditionally airlines have been organized internally to think this way. That’s part of the difficulty in the transformation. We’re bringing a cross-section of divisions together and challenging them: What does a connected airplane do to your aspect of our business? How do we start to work together to unlock value? It is probably going to take restructuring or reorganizing internally to get the kinds of successes we think are out there.
As an investor or analyst it is easy to see the appeal of this sort of approach. Using data and connectivity to make things more efficient is something of a holy grail in operational engineering and it is the sort of behavior which makes cost savings not just possible but also potentially useful to passengers. In the mean time, however, there’s the impact on the passenger experience. Inconsistency on that front has ranged from confusing to frustrating for customers.
It should be another nine months or so before United sees closure on that front. And until that time realizing the other efficiencies is much more challenging. Both the airlines and the connectivity vendors acknowledge that until connectivity is everywhere the value of the approach is incremental at best. But once the internet service is ubiquitous, once the airlines truly have each plane in their fleet as a “node on the network” there is a very real possibility for it to all work as designed.
The flip side, of course, is the pain experienced along the way. I came across this description of a minimally viable product (MVP) on Twitter the other day and I think that it applies reasonably to the current connectivity situation.
That is sourced from a blog post which apparently lifted it from Spotify with the general description:
If you want to sell a car (your successful end product) to your customer for X price, a lot of times a badly designed MVP/landing page might look a lot like a wheel (see picture). Instead of creating a wheel (incomplete MVP), think of something that would provide customers with an experience; to get from A to B faster than walking. A skateboard might be a very simplified solution to that and requires a lot of manual power, but it is a complete experience and a faster way to get to B. And of course, it is much cheaper and faster to build than a car.
Gogo’s VP airline partnerships Dave Bijur alluded to this approach the week prior at the APEX conference:
If you start with something like [CC swipe processing] you have a really good chance of learning something there that applies to the [Electronic Flight Bag]. And once you learn from the EFB now you have a shot at engine health monitoring. And once you learn from that, well, the list goes on.
Definitely a different approach but it is hard to say for certain one is absolutely right or wrong. United is confident in their solution but the timing is hard for many customers to stomach. Plus there’s the part where “restructuring or reorganizing internally” is not something airlines are typically good at. Perhaps the newly appointed CIO can help drive this (and many other pending IT projects) to completion.
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