We last looked at the Southwest Airlines BYOD in-flight entertainment (IFE) package back in 2014. At the time, the offering deserved every bit of praise given. But over the past nearly six years, the IFE space has changed a great deal. As a continued frequent Southwest Airlines flyer, when I use their IFE (and in-flight connectivity, IFC) I can’t help but cringe knowing my old review is still out there. Alas, my 2014 piece did not age well, on many fronts.
So let’s set the record straight: How have Southwest’s offerings withstood the test of time?
Southwest Airlines BYOD IFE: In-Flight Connectivity
This piece deals primarily with IFE (in-flight entertainment). Mostly because I have found Global Eagle (the airline’s vendor) to be completely inept at delivering a reliable data connection at usable speeds. The only reason I mention the usability of the connection today is that my earlier piece offered it high praise. That documented and very public accolade is something I regret each time I waste $8 on a near-useless all-day flight pass.
Why is the inflight connectivity so bad? Is Global Eagle really as poorly run as I choose to believe they are? Or, perhaps it’s because Southwest’s top-tier elites receive free internet access, and I typically fly on elite-heavy flights. Of course, complimentary services which rely on data (more on those later) contribute to congestion. The only advice I can offer friends, family, and AR readers alike is this: Do not bother.
In Southwest’s defense, they routinely say they are working to better manage their vendor. In late 2018, they suggested that GEE had increased bandwidth allocation by more than seven times. Problem is, the results just aren’t there, in my experience. Even if improvements have been made, the airline’s decision to give away slices of the small bandwidth pie certainly does not help.
Free iMessage and WhatsApp access
In late 2018, Southwest Airlines added free messaging as a unique and much appreciated free service. I take advantage of free messaging on nearly every flight. As long as I keep to text and don’t try to send photos, it works splendidly. This offering is a real bright spot in the Southwest Airlines BYOD ecosystem.
Protip: Use a long flight to take inventory of your conversations. A random note of appreciation or reply to a long abandoned conversation is sure to delight friends and family.
Southwest Airlines BYOD IFE – Radio, Music, and Podcasts
In-flight radio, music, and podcasts are provided via a service called iHeartRadio, a subsidiary of iHeartMedia. iHeartMedia (formerly Clear Channel Communications) is the conglomerate behind over 600 local broadcast radio stations. They remain a persistently hopeful player in the crowded streaming market.
The complimentary on-board iHeartRadio offering is rich, if not overwhelming for its varied options. There are three overarching categories to choose from: A large assortment of radio stations, podcasts, and a feature called Popular Artists by Genre. Streaming of radio stations and podcasts function as one might expect.
If pressed to describe the artists by genre option in one word, I would chose “inelegant.” I explored this feature just a few weeks ago. First I selected the dance genre. This presented over a dozen artists to choose from. I chose an artist of familiarity. The service took what felt like a full minute to buffer before playing. After each song there was another long pause, presumably for more buffering.
Roughly half of the songs played were by the artist I had chosen. The rest were a potpourri of others within the same genre. This begs the question; if the reality is more of a genre-level playlist, why bother with a multi-step selection process all the way down to artist?
This iHeartRadio service has promise. I would love to see some of the content stored on-board and thus freed from Global Eagle’s unreliable and slow data service. Your experience may vary; you should give it a try. Since it’s free, there is nothing to lose.
TV Series Streaming
TV is where the Southwest Airlines BYOD IFE really begins to shine. The complimentary offering has two segments; Titles available for streaming without the Southwest Airlines app, and those which require the app. At around a dozen options, choices for those without the Southwest app are limited. Thankfully the variety is diverse enough that folks should be able to find something appealing.
It’s likely safe to assume most passengers have the Southwest app on their phones. The same assumption might not carry to ancillary devices. Let this serve as a reminder to consider adding the app to larger-screened devices as well. Even as a fierce Southwest loyalist, I somehow didn’t have the app on my iPad. Learn from my mistake! The Southwest app unlocks another dozen or so titles. Items available within this segment have more name recognition and likely a much broader appeal given the number of iconic titles.
Free Live TV Streaming
At the time of writing, there are sixteen TV channels available for free streaming. While I can’t say I much care for live TV (and its commercials) this seems to be a popular offering on my flights. Given the apparent reliability of the service I assumed Southwest was accessing TV through a second antenna or something independent of their data service. I reached out to Tara Bamburg, Southwest’s Manager for WiFi and In-flight Entertainment to inquire. She explained that “we do not have a second antenna just to support live TV, but have instead isolated bandwidth just to support the delivery of live TV to the aircraft. While it does utilize bandwidth, it does not impact what we deliver in terms of connectivity.”
By isolating a part of the bandwidth for free TV, the airline is able to bolster its entertainment and hopefully distract customers from wanting reliable connectivity. And now that I think of it, it’s a brilliant strategy. Tara continued, “these enhancements help keep Customers entertained, which may also make for more bandwidth available to those Customers looking to stay connected and get some work done while traveling.”
Late last year, Southwest announced on-board movies would be available for free. This was a major win for passengers who had grown accustomed to paying $5 per movie. These movies are stored locally on the plane and are not reliant on the data service. As a result, the movies stream quickly and at an appropriate resolution.
Free movies is by far the richest entertainment offering in Southwest Airlines BYOD entertainment ecosystem. At last count there were nearly 50 titles available. With options spanning multiple genres and periods, there is truly something for everyone. Alongside new releases are classics like The Breakfast Club and Caddyshack.
Side note: Someone at Southwest Airlines must be a fellow Rebel Wilson fan. I counted at least three of her movies on offer.
One aspect of on-demand movies which a lot of airlines don’t get right is the interface. This is another spot where Southwest Airlines BYOD shines. Features such as scrubbing (moving forward or backward) as well as management and adjustment of captions and language preference are implemented well.
Southwest Airlines BYOD IFE Conclusion
Southwest’s IFE has come a long way over the years. Meaningful additions, with free messaging and movies, take the comprehensive package to the next level. These additions also offer a much needed distraction from Southwest’s perennially bad in-flight connectivity. From what I can tell, the airline recognizes their IFC isn’t great, and as a result has put a lot of thought and effort into finding new ways to keep folks entertained. It remains to be seen if this will be a viable long-term strategy. But for now, the airline deserves praise for squeezing every byte of data out of Global Eagle while having rich offerings cached on-board to relieve demand for those brave souls who do choose to opt for IFC. Now, if only some of the iHeartRadio content was stored on-board as well…