Expect to see some new wifi options on some United Airlines flights, at least for a short while. The company is testing options for higher speeds to support streaming video services, as well as a free option for messaging services, on some of its aircraft.
The test is expected to run through the end of the month, but the two new plans are not flying everywhere. The aircraft involved include:
- 737 MAX 9
- The one 737 MAX 8 in service
- Some 737-900ERs (generally the ones without LiveTV screens on board)
The limited breadth of the new options is potentially annoying and confusing for passengers, but there’s good reason for testing this way when looking to the future of the fleet.
Viasat confirmed as IFC provider for United’s news domestic fleet
The Viasat-based in-flight connectivity offering is the future of United’s fleet, at least for the new deliveries over the next 5+ years. In unveiling the new Signature Interiors last month the company extended its commitment to the Viasat platform for on-board WiFi. It now finally appears that the airline is ready to shift how it delivers that WiFi option to passengers, taking advantage of the industry’s maturing offerings for the in-flight market.
Read More: United Airlines wants WiFi to be free
When United launched its multi-provider connectivity options the Viasat/Thales-based 737s offered both basic and high-speed options. Eventually the high-speed option disappeared. One version of the story says it was too confusing to split price points and the passengers never purchased it. The other version says that because the Airbus fleet didn’t have similar capabilities the company chose a least common denominator approach and just limited everyone to a basic level of service.
But the competitive market is different now, as are the services from suppliers. The ability to offer a messaging-only option, with limited bandwidth and limited services enabled, comes as a check-box on a portal configuration page, not a complex, internally managed set of traffic shaping rules. And Delta Air Lines has been offering it for a while. As United shifts its fleet towards more premium seats and hopes to capture some higher-paying fares it will need to come closer to matching some of the softer on-board experience benefits.
Back in 2019, then President/now CEO Scott Kirby suggested that the carrier was “working towards a goal to get the system to a high enough level of reliability and bandwidth that we can make WiFi free for our customers.” Those efforts took a delay during the pandemic and will still require plenty of work to be realized. But the efforts appear to be back on track. At least for a very basic level of connectivity.
It also raises further questions about the future of United’s fleet make-up, mostly whether switching out providers might be necessary. The test will run across planes using all three of the company’s current providers, even with the plans for Viasat to service the majority of the fleet going forward.
Switching some of the older 737-800s from the Thales/Viasat configuration to a Viasat-only solution should be relatively easy, if United wants to consolidate providers in that manner. Switching the A320s and older A319s off the Panasonic Avionics kit to Viasat is harder and more expensive, and might not even be necessary. Given that most are in the 20ish years old range, a decision to invest in a retrofit or retire the aircraft should come relatively soon.
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