Video: Talking in-flight connectivity with United Airlines

What are the key challenges to getting internet connectivity working at 500+ miles/hour 30,00 feet above earth? How can a company take that service and make it more user-friendly? And what does it mean for operational performance of the airline? These are just some of the topics I spoke with Tarek Abdel-Halim, United Airlines’ managing director of cabin systems, about during the recent Future Travel Experience conference.

For those who follow the industry the answers are not too surprising. The United Airlines wifi efforts are similar to those of other carriers as well. Speaking about the complexities of integrating multiple service providers across the fleet (the carrier works with Thales/LiveTV, Gogo and Panasonic) Abdel-Halim was quite clear that those challenges should be invisible to passengers.

We’re trying to take a lot of that [merger] complexity and abstract it away from the customer. The customer should not care that we’ve got one provider on a certain aircraft versus another. It is all about the experience and delivering the consistent United WiFi experience.

So far the company is close but not entirely there. Differences in the portal functionality, pricing schemes and other factors still leave the end-user with slightly varied experiences, though it is getting closer to a common one. And much of that comes in the way the portal software is built and deployed. There are still more than 100 aircraft which need the systems installed so, somewhat understandably, the focus has been on completing the hardware rollout. Streamlining the end-user interface comes next. That includes things like the streaming video through the app or streaming DirecTV which is expected later this year.

We’re at the stage now where it is physical infrastructure. You’re going to then see a transition in the software to be something that we can update faster.

Finally, when it comes to operational performance the concept of aircraft as a “node on the network” is not unique to United Airlines. The company is taking a holistic approach to the topic, involving many departments, to get to the final result.

What does true broadband mean now in terms of what we can do in terms of optimizing fuel efficiency and our everyday performance. … This is a massive enterprise-wide effort.

And, of course, there is the part where even more bandwidth will be needed to support those operational needs. Many connectivity vendors are looking at what the future holds in this regard and working to get more bits and bytes to aircraft as quickly and inexpensively as possible. Some coverage of those efforts is available as premium content on the Runway Girl Network here.

The coming hear should see the shift Abdel-Halim described, from infrastructure to software & experience, both at United and other carriers. This is good news for passengers in many ways.

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

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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, and LinkedIn.