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.