United Becomes the First US Airline to Announce Wifi Over the Water

United fliers, rejoice. Your airline has now, finally, announced its comprehensive wifi plan. The result is . . . a little surprising, actually. I like it, to some extent, but it’s also going to create a divided onboard product. We still need more details before I can make a true judgment on this.

The plan is this. United will install wifi from Panasonic on “more than 300” aircraft in the domestic AND international fleet. That’s really the big news here. United will be the first American airline to put wifi on long haul international flights as well as domestic.

Today, United sadly has wifi only on its tiny fleet of p.s. airplanes that go back and forth between New York and both LA and San Francisco. Oh, and there might be that one 757 still roaming around testing Row 44’s system but I’d be surprised if that was still in service. Starting next year, United will finally play catch up.

You’ll remember that United said it would put wifi on the Continental pre-merger fleet that has LiveTV onboard. That’s not changing, and LiveTV will still be doing it. But the rest of the fleet is going a different way, with Panasonic.

The LiveTV deal uses a Ka band satellite which was just recently put into orbit to cover the US. Ka is notable in that it should be faster and significantly less expensive, but it hasn’t exactly been put into heavy use yet. I believe it also doesn’t have coverage as far-reaching as Ku at this point. Ku band is what Panasonic is going to be installing on the United fleet. I will be very curious to see how pricing comes out. Ku band isn’t very cheap.

We can look across the Pond to United’s partner Lufthansa to see how this might turn out. Lufthansa has been installing what it calls FlyNet on its airplanes where the rate is €10.95 (~$15) for one hour or €19.95 (~$27.50) for 24 hours. Could there be a joint subscription offering that would work on both airlines? That would make sense since people are supposed to be able to interchangeably use Lufthansa and United across the Atlantic, and it would be very welcome. But I’m not holding my breath for that just yet. I will be very curious to see how similar United’s pricing is.

One other piece that’s not exactly clearly is that we don’t know exactly how this is going to work out in terms of which airplanes will get this. The airline says more than 300 aircraft including the A319, A320, 747, 757, 767, 777, and 787 will get the service. Right now, there are 150 A319/A320 aircraft alone and another 140 or so 757s. Add in the 150 747/767/777 aircraft plus whatever 787s will come in the door and you have WAY more than 300 airplanes.

My guess here is that we’ll see a lot of pre-merger United 757s disappear as they get retired. Maybe some of the A319/A320 aircraft will be pushed out when leases expire as well. All we know is that by the end of 2015, the entire mainline fleet will have wifi, but I imagine that means the mainline fleet is going to either a) be smaller than it is today or b) have more 737s come in equipped with LiveTV to even this out. Lots to ponder here.

So is this good? Well sure, in theory. But as I mentioned, Ku band isn’t cheap so I will reserve judgment until I see how it’s going to be priced. Wifi is great, but super-expensive wifi isn’t going to win any friends. I asked Panasonic about the Ku vs Ka decision. The response was that the company “will offer an upgrade that will optimize our existing eXConnect solution for Ka.” I asked a follow-up question to better understand if it was an easy and painless upgrade or not and I received no response.

One last nugge of interest. United was quick to note that “The system will also enable wireless streaming of video content.” Remember that United announced that instead of putting in seat video into the 747s, it would just offer streaming of content. Makes you wonder if the plan for the 787 might be the same. That would be a radical change, especially this early in the game since there are still plenty of travelers without their own devices.

In the end, this means that everyone will get wifi onboard a United mainline aircraft, but that doesn’t mean the offering will be standardized. The domestic Continental airplanes, as with Delta’s fleet, will have LiveTV, movies, wifi, etc. The United domestic fleet, as with Northwest’s fleet, will just have wifi.

All in all, this is good news, but there are plenty of unanswered questions.


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Muscat,  Oman
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