American’s Test of Video Streaming is Just the First Step

American, Inflight Entertainment

American announced this week that it would begin testing streaming video with wifi-provider GoGo on a couple of airplanes, and it will expand wifi to the whole domestic fleet. This is an exciting development, but it’s really just the beginning.

It was just a couple weeks ago that I wrote a column for CNN saying that the future of inflight entertainment might very well be a power outlet and a wifi connection. That’s almost exactly what American is angling for here. (At least, I hope the power outlet is part of the equation eventually.)

GoGo Streaming Video Inflight

The way this works is simple. I spoke with Eric Lemond, GoGo’s VP of Product and Platform Management to get the full details. GoGo has a big server on the airplane with a ton of storage. (I’m told they could store 1,000 movies with what they have now.) Travelers will pop open their laptops and connect to the wireless network just as they would to go online. Then, each traveler can open up the browser to decide whether to purchase internet or whether to purchase the content stored on the airplane. American hasn’t announced pricing yet, so we don’t know what that will look like, but I imagine it will be less expensive than going online.

The initial plan is to have a library of movies and television available for people to stream. The streaming is done in your browser via Flash. You need to download a security plugin (that’s stored on the airplane) to prevent theft but that’s quick and then you’re ready to go. As of now, only laptops are supported. Mobile phone support is on the road map, but I wasn’t given a timeline. With the increasing use of mobiles, that needs to speed up quickly.

One of the biggest problems I see is that in order to watch the movie, you have to be connected to the internet for the payment to process. So if you’re on a flight from, say, Honolulu to LA, then you’re out of luck because there’s no internet access, even at the beginning. If, however, you’re going from, oh, Dallas to San Jose, Costa Rica, then you should have enough internet time at the beginning of the flight to buy the movie and watch it. Eric says that there is a roadmap that would allow people to eventually watch movies without that initial internet connection, but that’s down the line. You can, however, continue to watch a movie on the ground for a certain period of time after your flight, if you’re unable to finish it on the airplane. That’s a nice little bonus.

The other concern, of course, is around the quality of the streaming. If I get a “buffering” message every couple minutes, then this will fail. Eric says that GoGo has that under control. Since the streaming is all happening on the airplane and doesn’t require the air-to-ground connection, it’s a lot easier to make it work. Now, if 150 people all decided to watch the same movie within 5 minutes of each other, then performance might be degraded, but Eric says they can use engineering as necessary to increase capacity as demand grows.

Of course, for this to be worthwhile, American needs to commit to wifi instead of half-committing as it’s done so far. That is changing with this announcement. Today, American has wifi on its fleet of 767-200s that fly between the west coast and east coast. Two of those airplanes will be the ones doing the streaming test. American also has wifi on 150 of its MD-80s and will install it on 50 more. (That will leave less than 50 without wifi, but those will be retired sooner rather than later.)

Today, only 43 of the airline’s 737-800s have wifi, and that’s only about a third of the fleet. I asked American when the 737 fleet would be done, and I was given PR-speak: “American continues to install Wi-Fi service on 737-800 aircraft and the entire fleet is expected to be outfitted overtime.” Um, ok. These installs take very little time at all, so I have no clue why this is taking so long and why an estimate on when the fleet will be done is unavailable.

But the biggest issue for American has been the lack of wifi on the 757 fleet. Now, the 93 757s used for domestic flights (the rest do international like east coast to Europe) will get wifi as well. That should be done by the end of 2012.

The end result is that the entire mainline domestic fleet will have wifi. Unlike Delta, American has no plans to install wifi on its large regional jets (or its small regional jets, for that matter). And international, of course, will continue to not have wifi because GoGo is ground-based.

But as I said, this is just the start. GoGo says that there is the ability to have gaming, audio, and other rich media on the server, so it’s just a matter of figuring out what the airlines want to offer. This definitely seems like the smart way forward to me. Of course, this again makes powerports even more important. When are we gonna hear an announcement about full 110V power throughout the airplane, American? Those cigarette lighter ports in some rows just don’t cut it.

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23 comments on “American’s Test of Video Streaming is Just the First Step

  1. One thing with these developments that I am not a fan of: The idea is to make (or allow, which sounds nicer) passengers use their own computers or phones. I know its the core drive here but is it really good for the user? If this became a standard to the point that inseat screens are replaced, people will need to always bring laptops or phones, increasing the amount cabin luggage, as the laptop bags will come with chargers and what not else that tends to be in those bags. Then, those bags will crowd up the already limited area under the seats and to watch anything, the tray table needs to be down, further restricting space. With longer flights in mind, this also would make meal services an entertainment free time as the table is needed for food, and from when the meal is served and cleaned up, it can be quite a while.

    I see the huge cost savings for airlines here, but no real benefit for the customer, except, maybe, for being able to finish a movie after a flight.

    1. i think it’s a brilliant idea. The airline is requiring YOU to bring on the technology to watch their entertainment. but YOU’RE missing the point about the benefit to the customer. It’s COSTING them less to invest in this technology that rapidly changes anyway. Thus, NOT increasing costs to the airline or YOU.

    2. The airlines could easily create something to hold your device if this becomes a permanent thing. They already do it today. American, for example, has a hand-held device for its business class and it has a thing to hold it so it’s hands-free.

      1. I can’t imagine they haven’t considered the iOS angle; at the testing stage it might not be far enough along yet to talk about. But I imagine the video is really Flash-packaged H.264 like YouTube does, so an iOS device could be delivered the raw H.264 stream.

        To get around the lack of ability to install a custom browser plugin (will this plugin support Mac/Linux and Safari/Firefox/Chrome for those of us who don’t do Windows), they could come up with a pretty simple app that basically wraps the browser to provide playback and adds the security stuff that the plugin provides. The one downside is that they still have to have an Internet connection for people to be able to connect to Apple’s app store to download and install the app during flight.

        Or maybe they’ll find a way to not use the custom plugin for mobile devices; I imagine it’s mostly to prevent people from saving the streaming content to their hard drives, which sounds a lot harder on a mobile device.

    1. They have a roadmap that will support every device on earth, but this is how they’ve decided to do the initial rollout. Every browser is supported, so Mac users will absolutely be able to use Safari or Firefox. But if you can’t support Flash, then you’re out of luck for now.

  2. overall, i like this idea. but I’m really disappointed that it’s Flash-based. and Hermann brings up a great point about tray-table usage. perhaps if this meets with success, they should consider some kind of small mounting ledge for tablets/netbooks/notebooks. i’m not bothered so much by AAL’s having only cigarette-lighter outlets, as i always travel with one of those adapters for car use anyway. But ensuring that they work and that there are enough throughout the aircraft are key.

  3. “When are we gonna hear an announcement about full 110V power throughout the airplane, American? Those cigarette lighter ports in some rows just don’t cut it.”

    American is already working on putting 110V power on every 737 (the newly-delivered 737s already have it) and the domestic 757s as part of the cabin upgrades that are underway (but separate from GoGo installation, AFAIK). (The international 757s all have 110V power too, but AA hasn’t said anything about them getting GoGo.)

    They’re better than most airlines in that they do have the cigarette lighters in at least some rows in coach on every mainline aircraft. Increasingly, in my experience, the 737 are flying the 3+ hour domestic routes (in addition to shorter ones), while the MD80s do more short haul, so I’m not sure the lack of 110V power matters much on the MD80s — probably not worth the effort on a fleet whose days are numbered.

    1. It’s true that American is ahead of others here, but there have been widespread reports of power being disabled on many airplanes. I believe that the 757 fleet has no power at all right now, unless that’s been fixed recently. So there’s still a long way to go here.

  4. AA killed its MD 80 flight from my home airport ABQ to ORD and Put CRJ 700 With AE on them insteaded then agian UA uses E170s ABQ-ORD and only once a day at like noon while AA does Morning Noon Night with the last leaving 7 something ish but yet they still do DFW flights with MD 80s I wounder why but ABQ-ORD is 3 hrs or so yet DFW is like 45 min to an hour and 20 so I wounder why pull ABQ-ORD Md 80 flights yet when it would be better to pull ABQ-DFW and put CRJ 700s on it

  5. Just use Netflix and if you travel within the USA, take the DVD with you to watch on the plane and drop it in the mailbox when you get to your destination. That will surely be cheaper then paying AA. But you still need a good battery or outlets at every seat.

  6. Should be interesting to see how they’ll provide enough bandwidth to stream without frequent stalling and with sufficient resolution to a hundred or more viewers. It really doesn’t matter if they are watching the same movie or not, by the way.

    They could probably easily solve the CC verification problem by letting people by voucher codes prior to the flight or even during the flight (the FAs sell food anyway and usually take CCs).

    Personally, is isn’t the route I am going for the forseeable future. Much easier to load a bunch of movies onto my iPad that I time/platform-shifted off my Netflix DVDs.

    1. Short answer: 802.11n. If you’ve got two APs in a plane the experience should be far from painful.

    2. Well they could also solve the CC verification by just doing it offline.. You know old school.

      Merchants don’t have to authorize the purchase with the credit card network, they could simply store the card number for charging once they’re back in range or on the ground.

      This does introduce the risk that someone would use a fraudulent credit card, but its a reasonable risk to increase sales and customer satisfacton.

      I’m also kindof amazed that the credit card companies haven’t started passing around a list of credit card numbers that are invalid. Don’t laugh I remember back in the mid-80s clerks at the grocery store looking up through a printed list of invalid card numbers that Visa and MasterCard provided. Doing this digitally would be really reasonable.

  7. Hey GoGo and AA; wake up. Look at how many people are using iPads and Macs. With intelligence like this you should all go work for the government.

    1. I’m glad someone caught the Midnight Madness screenshot. (There are probably only 5 people on earth who ever saw that movie.)

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