On November 20, 2013 Southwest Airlines announced that, effective immediately, customers could use their portable electronic devices (PEDs) gate-to-gate. This was expected as other airlines had been making similar announcements earlier in the month after the FAA relaxed their rules. What wasn’t expected was that in-flight entertainment (IFE), through their Row 44 WiFi, would also be available gate-to-gate, making them the first U.S. airline to offer a seamless integrated experience, regardless of altitude.
Southwest Airlines has long been a renegade, going against the grain, often being successful with that strategy. When the industry zigs, they zag and usually find themselves with a competitive advantage. And that’s exactly what they did when they bucked the trend of U.S. airlines signing on with traditional passenger-level-hardware IFE. Instead, Southwest chose Row 44, an industry underdog to provide their connectivity. Row 44’s network is powered solely by satellite, whereas (at the time) the other big domestic players (i.e. GoGo) focused on terrestrial (land-based cell tower) service.
I’m a known critic of IFE at the airline-provided-hardware level. I am of the school of thought that if you can give me WiFi, I’ll find a way to entertain myself, with my own device(s). BYOD (that is, “bring your own device”) is gaining in popularity across many industries and applications, so why not with airlines? Traditional IFE is expensive to implement, heavy to fly around, and requires added maintenance. With passengers likely to bring the added weight of their own devices anyway, why not simply eliminate the cost and complexity?
Southwest’s in-flight connectivity is nothing new, but has matured well beyond basic WiFi. I recently had the opportunity to try out the new gate-to-gate, or in my case, gate-to-gate-to-gate Row 44 on a business trip from Kansas City with a stopover at Dallas Love Field on my way to San Antonio. Let me say, I was impressed.
I have long been a frequent Southwest passenger and have had the opportunity to watch as they improve Row 44’s offering, and continue to roll it out across their fleet. What began as simple, and sometimes buggy, in-flight connectivity (IFC) on just a fraction of planes, has now morphed into something much more advanced: Diverse and capable BYOD in-flight entertainment, IFE.
According to Rob Hahn, Southwest customer advocacy team leader and one of many @SouthwestAir twitter co-hosts: “Approximately 77% of the Southwest’s fleet is equipped with Row 44.” Southwest offers a number of IFC and IFE options, some of which are even free. At the time of my review, 12/17/2013, they were as follows:
- Games – Sudoku and Crosswords, with more on the way: Free
- Very limited web browsing, Southwest.com, Skymall.com, flight tracker: Free
- 15 live television channels and 12 TV series’ – Free (Compliments of Dish Network)
- iMessage connectivity for Apple devices – $2 per device, all day. The company is exploring options for users of Android devices, however, I suspect the fractured user experience and incredible variability/implementation of Android OS could be a significant challenge for them.
- All day WiFi- $8, per device
- Over 25 current and classic movies across 10 genres- $5 per movie, per device, all day
I opted for the $8 WiFi connection.
I forgot to test the throughput of my connection but can say Southwest’s Row 44 offered a solid browsing speed even with a number of my fellow passengers partaking in the free TV. Bandwidth-intensive activities such as VoIP, Netflix and Hulu are banned for the reason of the common experience, but I suspect this is more to allow the better control over usage, and likely revenue, should they choose to begin charging for TV.
While the common VoIP services were not able to connect (I tried!), I was surprised to see that I was able to get a very quick, muted, FaceTime call back home to my kiddo and his pal. This was for experimentation only, no conversation–I wouldn’t condone that–just wanted to see if it would work, and it did, with fair video quality.
The flight tracker, which is free for all and displays as an inserted browser bar menu, is well-designed and displays all of the info one would expect: Time to arrival, altitude, heading, ground speed, and a map. Notice the screen-shot above was taken at 4,429 feet, well below 10,000. It feels weird to have electronic devices on below 10,000 feet, but it also quite nice.
The IFC/IFE wars seem long and undying. There are many folks in the aviation community that strongly support airline-provided hardware. And while resistance to BYOD is just now starting to ease, the folks at Southwest Airlines and Row 44 have long been pioneering the BYOD experience. With gate-to-gate entertainment and connectivity offered by no one else in the US, and perhaps the world, Southwest again stands apart from the herd.