You might remember that we got to fly United’s inaugural Boeing 787-10 stretch Dreamliner service from San Francisco to Newark a few weeks ago. There was all the new plane buzz you’d expect. But one feature that deserved its own special mention was the plane’s inflight entertainment system. It was redesigned from the ground up to include tons of new features, from a better moving maps for the #AvGeeks (including us!) to live news updates, a movie+map split-screen option, a favorites list, and a trippy “relax mode.” Plus, the folks at UA went out of their way to accommodate passengers with impaired vision and/or hearing.
Read on for our report with all the details about United’s new screens in the sky!
Watching the CNN Airport Network at JFK – Photo: Jason Rabinowitz
When I was growing up, I would have long layovers at airports. Typically looking outside at the planes would entertain me, but I also always made sure I had one of the TVs, hanging from the ceiling, in view. I could sit and watch the CNN Airport Network for hours and be good.
It was my mainstay of personal entertainment at the airport for many years. Of course there wasn’t too much competition back then. Today, I rarely even notice the TVs anymore. With having multiple personal devices and free WiFi, the competition for my attention has become fierce.
CNN headquarters in Atlanta
When I was recently making a trip down to Atlanta, I decided to reach out for a tour of the CNN Airport Network operations and learn a bit more about their station and how it works. I also wanted to see how they are working to stay relevant, with all the other options out there. I went in without many expectations, but I have to say I walked away with quite a few surprises.
Southwest 737-700 (N711HK) seen at Dallas Love Field with Row 44 raydome between the strobe and vertical stabilizer. It also sports a retro-livery design.
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.
BONUS: GoGo Unveils New In-Flight Technology
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.