United announced yesterday that they are beginning to offer access to streaming content like movies and television shows you can watch on your own electronic devices, such as an iPad or laptop computer. Presumably this is linked to the roll-out of their new satellite-based in-flight Internet service, though they aren’t equivalent.
GoGo (a ground-based service that works with several competitors, as well as United’s p.s. routes) already provides the option to stream some content rather than pay for generic Internet access, and the same will be true with United’s service. Streaming video over the Internet uses a lot of bandwidth. I assume the content is stored on the aircraft itself rather than being transmitted from land or space and only uses the local WiFi network on the plane for distribution.
Discussion in a related thread on FlyerTalk already includes a lot of criticism of this service, some of it complaining that because United doesn’t provide in-seat power on many of its flights, customers run the risk of draining their devices’ batteries. I wouldn’t be too harsh. Watching a movie for half the flight seems better than no movie at all, or being forced to watch one of those large projection screens that United still uses in its economy class on some aircraft.
Do you want my version of hell? I was stuck in economy class on a 747 from Tokyo to San Francisco once, in a middle seat next to another passenger who would not shut up about how awesome Delta is. I would have paid to stream a movie to my iPad during a trip like this.
United reports that it will be adding the service to A319, A320, Boeing 747-400, and select Boeing 777-200 aircraft — that is, those planes with the most out-dated entertainment systems (or none at all). This isn’t so much an issue on short flights like SEA-SFO, but I’ve also seen A319s used for SEA-EWR. Not fun, even in first class. Many of the Boeing 737, 787, and 777 aircraft already have seat-back televisions with either live or recorded content.
But United really needs to work toward a more cohesive entertainment strategy. I can usually rely on having GoGo on flights with American, Alaska, or Delta. I can’t really rely on GoGo working well, but at least it’s there. United has a mishmash of entertainment options include seat-back television, ground-based Internet, satellite-based Internet, overhead television, and nothing at all. Back when I still flew United, I never knew what to expect and resigned myself to reading or working on stuff that didn’t require an Internet connection.
(Yes, you can check what amenities will be on your flight on United.com or by using the United app 48 hours before departure, but that’s not the same as having consistent service every time I fly a preferred carrier.)
Assuming United can roll out this new service to the majority of its fleet — remember, it shouldn’t require a satellite or ground connection to work if the media is stored on-board — that will be an improvement. I rarely watch live television and would prefer the chance to rent a movie other than the three or four on DirecTV.
When I first saw the email from United Airlines promoting “personal device entertainment” coming soon on select flights, I thought they were talking about something similar to the digEplayers on Alaska Airlines. Alaska is known for friendly service, but it’s a pretty no-frills airline even in first class. The digEplayers are an efficient means to provide entertainment without massive investments that require installing any hardware. Low-tech, maybe, but something United could consider if it wants to speed things along.