United Becomes the First US Airline to Announce Wifi Over the Water

Inflight Entertainment, United

United fliers, rejoice. Your airline has now, finally, announced its comprehensive wifi plan. The result is . . . a little surprising, actually. I like it, to some extent, but it’s also going to create a divided onboard product. We still need more details before I can make a true judgment on this.

The plan is this. United will install wifi from Panasonic on “more than 300” aircraft in the domestic AND international fleet. That’s really the big news here. United will be the first American airline to put wifi on long haul international flights as well as domestic.

Wifi Over Water

Today, United sadly has wifi only on its tiny fleet of p.s. airplanes that go back and forth between New York and both LA and San Francisco. Oh, and there might be that one 757 still roaming around testing Row 44’s system but I’d be surprised if that was still in service. Starting next year, United will finally play catch up.

You’ll remember that United said it would put wifi on the Continental pre-merger fleet that has LiveTV onboard. That’s not changing, and LiveTV will still be doing it. But the rest of the fleet is going a different way, with Panasonic.

The LiveTV deal uses a Ka band satellite which was just recently put into orbit to cover the US. Ka is notable in that it should be faster and significantly less expensive, but it hasn’t exactly been put into heavy use yet. I believe it also doesn’t have coverage as far-reaching as Ku at this point. Ku band is what Panasonic is going to be installing on the United fleet. I will be very curious to see how pricing comes out. Ku band isn’t very cheap.

We can look across the Pond to United’s partner Lufthansa to see how this might turn out. Lufthansa has been installing what it calls FlyNet on its airplanes where the rate is €10.95 (~$15) for one hour or €19.95 (~$27.50) for 24 hours. Could there be a joint subscription offering that would work on both airlines? That would make sense since people are supposed to be able to interchangeably use Lufthansa and United across the Atlantic, and it would be very welcome. But I’m not holding my breath for that just yet. I will be very curious to see how similar United’s pricing is.

One other piece that’s not exactly clearly is that we don’t know exactly how this is going to work out in terms of which airplanes will get this. The airline says more than 300 aircraft including the A319, A320, 747, 757, 767, 777, and 787 will get the service. Right now, there are 150 A319/A320 aircraft alone and another 140 or so 757s. Add in the 150 747/767/777 aircraft plus whatever 787s will come in the door and you have WAY more than 300 airplanes.

My guess here is that we’ll see a lot of pre-merger United 757s disappear as they get retired. Maybe some of the A319/A320 aircraft will be pushed out when leases expire as well. All we know is that by the end of 2015, the entire mainline fleet will have wifi, but I imagine that means the mainline fleet is going to either a) be smaller than it is today or b) have more 737s come in equipped with LiveTV to even this out. Lots to ponder here.

So is this good? Well sure, in theory. But as I mentioned, Ku band isn’t cheap so I will reserve judgment until I see how it’s going to be priced. Wifi is great, but super-expensive wifi isn’t going to win any friends. I asked Panasonic about the Ku vs Ka decision. The response was that the company “will offer an upgrade that will optimize our existing eXConnect solution for Ka.” I asked a follow-up question to better understand if it was an easy and painless upgrade or not and I received no response.

One last nugge of interest. United was quick to note that “The system will also enable wireless streaming of video content.” Remember that United announced that instead of putting in seat video into the 747s, it would just offer streaming of content. Makes you wonder if the plan for the 787 might be the same. That would be a radical change, especially this early in the game since there are still plenty of travelers without their own devices.

In the end, this means that everyone will get wifi onboard a United mainline aircraft, but that doesn’t mean the offering will be standardized. The domestic Continental airplanes, as with Delta’s fleet, will have LiveTV, movies, wifi, etc. The United domestic fleet, as with Northwest’s fleet, will just have wifi.

All in all, this is good news, but there are plenty of unanswered questions.

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12 comments on “United Becomes the First US Airline to Announce Wifi Over the Water

  1. Should be interesting when a widebody plane filled with people and their techie gadgets all want to use wifi during those long over water day night flights. Will the system be able to handle it.

    Even if the cost is high, on those long multi hour flights it could be worth it for people to pass the time so you could have a lot of people waning to use it at once.

    1. Go to a busy coffee shop with lots of laptop users for a good simulation. Many of them crawl down to pretty slow. AFAIK most AT&T hotspots have a single T1 behind them. Not as fast but far more reliable w/ better support from the telco. I know of one Starbucks that must have a multiple T1 or other technology behind it. That being said it is the highest volume sales Starbucks in the state if not the country/world. (University Village Starbucks in Seattle, WA)

    2. Nope, someone in management at my airline said usage is only about 5 PERCENT. Usage is minimal, yet the airline spent alot of money installing it because the public said they wanted it. (I suspect they wanted it for FREE like everything else).

  2. As this blog has wisely pointed out having wi-fi for a transcon. flight is great, however if you don’t have power outlets what’s the point??? My iPhone is quite power hungry. . . .

  3. With regards to streaming content replacing IFE, if United is placing these planes on international long haul, then they need to compete with the likes of BA, CX, KE, EK who have full AVOD with thousands of options at every seat.

    Streaming content may work but they need to invest in the product (at least internationally). Domestically, they can do whatever and be fine due to shorter stage lengths and generally less American expectation for IFE.

  4. Overall, I like the announcement, and I’d use (and likely pay for) WiFi on long-haul international flights, particularly those returning to the U.S. from Europe (when it’s daytime).

    That said, I agree with the concerns already pointed out: (1) on long-haul (even transcontinental) flights, WiFi is silly without in-seat power; it drains the battery even faster, and (2) while, in time, it may come to a point where so many passengers are carrying their own device that IFE is moot, I think that time is not coming soon. And while United awaits that time, its competitors will offer comprehensive IFE (and, in due time, likely WiFi too).

    As for using multiple systems…well, that inconsistency in product is United’s style:
    –It’s taken forever to install flat-bed seats internationally; thus, there’s huge variation in the quality of the transoceanic business/first class experience;
    –A319 and A320 aircraft have small first class cabins while 757s have large first class cabins [yes, a 757’s cabin will always be a bit bigger, but the difference on UA is huge: 8 on a 319 (vs. 16 on an AA 737/MD80) and 22 on a 757];
    –Mainline first offers china and meals while Express first offers plastic cups and snack boxes (AA and DL use china and serve meals on Eagle/DL Connection first);
    –Some airpots (like Dulles) have ancient signage harkening back to two ‘looks’ ago while others look modern.

    The list could go on, and it’s only gotten more complex with the merger — UA lie flat seats on some planes, CO’s on others; Economy Plus on some of the fleet, not on others; continued variation in the size of the first class cabin, but now within and not just between aircraft of similar size, etc.

    So why not use two WiFi systems?

  5. I think the long-haul numbers might be more easily achieved than at first glance. Almost all over-water (with the notable exception of HNL) flights by United are on 747, 767, and 777 planes.

  6. I was on that lone 757 earlier this year.

    Anyway, I echo the others: if there’s no power outlets, then don’t bother.

    the LH prices would certainly price me out. I wouldn’t bite.

  7. With technology creating longer and longer battery life for laptops and cellphones, it seems that some airlines are trying to wait out wiring hundreds of AC outlets onto planes. You got iPads lasting 9+ hours and new MacBooks going 5+ hours. Yes, that would be great if every seat had it’s own AC outlet, but you need to think about the installation cost and strain on the plane’s power system.

  8. This makes me so happy. Now I won’t get bored to death when I’m flying to the UK from Miami, which I do quite frequently. To bad my laptop battery doesn’t last m ore than 5 hours. Damn, I will still be bored to death, or almost.

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