“We here at United do not think streaming to your own device is good enough.” With that statement United Airlines‘ Chief Customer Officer Toby Enqvist upended the company’s take on in-flight entertainment for its single-aisle fleet. As part of its 270-aircraft order announced on Tuesday the carrier committed to in-seat entertainment at every mainline seat.
We’re going to elevate the experience for everybody on board, but we’re also creating a product that is very has a lot of premium features to it, that everybody gets to enjoy.– CEO Scott Kirby
Enqvist’s comments are matched by those of CEO Scott Kirby. While he is excited by the massive new aircraft order book the company now sits on, he also recognizes that “For our customers what ultimately will matter the most is the signature interiors and what that will mean for the customer experience on our airplanes.”
IFE screens at every seat
The new planes will all be delivered with an updated version of the Panasonic Avionics entertainment system on board. First class passengers get a 13″ screen and economy class gets a 10″ model. The HD screens are bright and responsive but only a small part of the overall story.
Similar to comments from JetBlue, Delta Air Lines and Viasat, Enqvist notes, “It is not an either/or decision for IFE. The younger millennial passengers like to watch a movie, do work, and use two or three devices at the same time. And that’s why we’ve seen such a good response to adding IFE screens on to planes.” As the decision-making passengers seem to favor (or demand??) the more “at home” experience while flying some airlines are choosing to deliver.
Expansive content library on board
The system includes 2,800 IFE selections, including movies and TV shows with a planned monthly content update cycle. The system also includes music play lists, a big deal for United after it got burned on copyright lawsuits in the past.
Missing from the content, however, is live television. While the service is available from Panasonic via the Viasat connection (JetBlue will do just that on its A321LRs serving Europe), United chose to not include the live television package, at least for now.
Bluetooth that works!
Passengers at every seat on board have the option to pair Bluetooth headphones to the entertainment system. This was the most common enhancement request from passengers and a relatively new solution from the IFE vendors to deliver. United is the first US carrier to roll out a Bluetooth option and only a couple days behind Qatar Airways announcing similar on its newest 787-9 fleet.
The pairing and unpairing process is relatively simple. The user interface is similar to pairing on a phone, but with a couple unique improvements. Most notably, there is a button on the screen to refresh the list of available devices rather than waiting for the system to poll on its own.
Fast WiFi on board
The company promises “Each new 737 MAX and A321neo will have the industry’s fastest available in-flight WiFi that lets customers stream video from online services.” While the specific vendor is not named in the release PaxEx.Aero confirmed that at least the initial round of MAX deliveries will fly with Viasat’s Ka-band satellite solution on board. Later tranches of deliveries may shift, but this, along with recent Delta orders, bodes well for the satellite provider.
Massive retrofit program to come
United also committed to upgrade the offering on the existing aircraft to include the new screens, overhead bins, interior lighting, and other cabin tweaks. In total the company will retrofit hundreds of aircraft with the new product, an expensive and time-consuming process. But United has an aggressive timeline and is confident the targets can be met.
The company aims to perform 66% of the retrofits by the end of 2023 and to complete the project in 2025. Enqvist even hinted that he thinks a late 2024 completion could be possible. Given the Polaris retrofit work and some of the challenges that ran in to the aggressive timeline could be worrisome. EVP and Chief Commercial Officer Andrew Nocella is confident in the plan, however.
Nocella explains that hitting the target is “about lining up the vendors ahead of time and the supply chain to make that happen. We’ve carefully constructed that to ensure that the delays don’t happen again.” Nocella also notes that “narrow-body aircraft are dramatically easier to retrofit than a wide-body, so this is an easier project to do.”
The scale of the retrofit project could also adjust over the years ahead. United’s CFO Gerry Laderman is keen on the flexibility the order presents, “Given the size of our fleet and when you look at the age of some of our aircraft, one of the great things about this order is the flexibility of using aircraft for replacement or for growth.” While the company stated that about 200 50-seat RJs and another 100 mainline planes are up for retirement there are many other mainline aircraft that could also be on the way out, speeding the retrofit process.
The A319/A320 fleet is relatively old, for example, and might not justify the significant capital outlay to fit with the new IFE for a short lifespan. Plus, United appears keen to consolidate its single-aisle in-flight connectivity on to the Viasat platform. Those planes currently carry the Panasonic Avionics satellite connectivity hardware.
A life-long goal
When United Airlines removed change fees from nearly all its fares during the height of the pandemic COE Scott Kirby noted it was a long-term goal of his, but that the he could never make the numbers work without the external impetus that the pandemic provided. Similarly, Kirby also claims that he’s always been a fan of in-seat entertainment.
In addition to noting that he oversaw the installation of it at American and that the “Oasis/Kodiak” removal happened after his departure, Kirby also relayed that he was angling to install the system at America West more than 20 years ago. He was waylaid, however, by JetBlueThe only airline in the world that had seat-back live TV was JetBlue at the time. And JetBlue bought the company to prevent America West from putting the live TV on to keep that competitive advantage. So I have been a fan of seatback entertainment for my entire career.
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