Airline Industry Feels WiFi Is As Integral To Flight Experience As Wings

Throughout last week's Airline Passenger Experience Expo, the primary news pouring out was about inflight entertainment and connectivity. The death knell began to ring a few years ago for the traditional seat back TV, as analysts foresaw the growth of personal devices like laptops, phones and tablets.

At a speech during the convention, International Air Transport Association Manager of Passenger Experience Development Dimiter Zahariev told the audience that Wifi is the 4th utility, after electricity, gas and water. I would agree to that for the most part, but that message really put the importance of Wifi into perspective for me. When I'm flying, I still view it as a luxury, and usually never purchase it on flights that are under two hours.

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But in my life on the ground, it does feel like a true need. I use it for everything from this website, to bill paying, buying goods and services, entertainment and interacting with friends and family. In addition, my presence and activity on social media is largely responsible for making the professional contacts that led to me to being a writer here.

Current and future applications of inflight entertainment and connectivity video by Thales

Touring the convention center floor, you'd think that connectivity is the only thing that matters now, except for shoe-horning as many people into as little space as possible. While there are still a few airlines out there using VHS tapes to show movies on ceiling mounted CRT televisions, they're no longer the norm. Many airlines have moved on to other technologies, and much of that involves providing streaming content in some form.

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Passenger using Gogo wifi. Photo via Gogo

What are those streaming options? The cheapest option for airlines is AVOD, or Available Video On Demand. Because the majority of passengers now travel with a smartphone, tablet or laptop, it's easy for airlines to offer wifi or streaming video via a subscription during the flight. Traditional inflight entertainment systems add a lot of fuel-consuming weight to the aircraft. But a wifi radome on top of the plane only adds a couple of hundred pounds, which is pretty minimal. Airlines may also choose to loan out tablets or rent them for a fee during a flight. In the photo at the top, we see a Samsung tablet clipped into the back of a seat, which serves the same purpose as the traditional system without the weight and maintenance costs to the airline.

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The IATA says airline passengers want a personalized experience during their flight. Passengers want to not only choose their seats, but also products like movies, meals and wine. Passengers want the choice of how they connect — more than just "here's your wifi." They want to connect with friends and family via video chat services like Skype. IATA says 56 percent of passengers want to be able to interact with the airline. I did that yesterday, as I flew from Denver to Los Angeles on United and gave them some feedback via Twitter about their new Wifi service, which is currently in beta testing.

As our personal space on planes decreases, entertainment and productivity options are increasing as airlines and their technology providers are designing and implementing ways to make flying more enjoyable. Of course it's up to the airlines as to whether we'll get to see any of these advances, or which ones we'll get to see. But at least we know there's hope.

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