United’s approach to in-flight wifi is different and that might be a good thing


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?

A United Airlines 737 with wifi installed
A United Airlines 737 with wifi installed

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.

One of the slide's from United's presentation at the show
One of the slide’s from United’s presentation at the show

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.

https://twitter.com/benhyphenrowe/status/514984422089965569/

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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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, LinkedIn and .

6 Comments

  1. Beyond just the connectivity is building something that actually works. My last three flights were all equipped with the inflight streaming entertainment. Didn’t work once. All three flights, I received a message saying “Due to bandwidth constraints, this service is not available. Try again later.”

  2. This sounds good and all but I mean it is still inexcusable how far behind UA is on this front at this point and in my mind what they are talking about is not revolutionary. VX has had wifi in the cabin for years and has had food/drink orders through their entertainment system. I don’t see anything like that coming to UA anytime soon. AA has figured out a way for EXP passengers to be recognized in Y when they don’t get upgraded. If UA was serious about more personalized service they could have provided it long ago.

    I do think UA has some smart, good people in their ranks and that the timing of the merger didn’t really help on the wifi rollout, but I don’t think they are really thinking out of the box here in ways other airlines are not already a step ahead of them on.

  3. “A United Airlines 737 with wifi installed”

    LIES! I have zoomed in to find the tail number. Extracted the date from the metadata. I have found this plane indeed did not have wifi at the time the photo was taken.

    1. At the risk of being an idiot for engaging with a person who actively names themself “troll” in the comments, the aircraft is N66814 – Ship 3814 and nose number 0814 – and the photo was taken on 26 September 2014. The plane was departing LAS en route to IAH: http://flightaware.com/live/flight/N66814/history/20140926/2006Z/KLAS/KIAH. And it absolutely has the LiveTV/Thales Ka-band internet service on board.

      Also, that radome is pretty distinctive on top of the fuselage.

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