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Tech / Innovation

What Happens When Wi-Fi Works Inflight?

Waiting to board a 777 from Heathrow to Buenos Aires this week, my BA ‘Ready to Fly’ app buzzed with the latest departure details, the route to terminal and traffic reports. It reminded me how technology – and personalised information – has removed much of the stress of getting on a plane, and transformed the experience of actually being at the airport.

Once hothouses for bustling travelers, airports are now places you might actually choose to spend time in. They can be stages for a seamlessly connected customer experience.


Travellers at Dusseldorf airport for example, can now watch large screens that display real-time energy generated and carbon emissions prevented by 8,400 newly installed solar panels that cover an area of 6 soccer fields.

Nice touch but it’s only the beginning.

Melbourne has a ‘tilt tray baggage sorting system’ – an automated, super high-speed baggage system – to deal with 20,000 bags daily. From heated runways in Pittsburgh that keep winter flights moving, to terminal seats with air filtration systems in Sacramento, when it comes to modern amenities, airports are leading the way.

On-board, however, the connected customer experience still has a long way to go.

Despite the rush to fit Wi-Fi on-board, passengers are confronted with a paradox: when the need for connectivity is highest – travelling somewhere new, needing information or to relay messages – we’re plunged into an air gap. Just as we need to let our colleagues know there’s fog over Delhi or we are in a holding pattern over Heathrow, we can’t.

Even if some planes do have Wi-Fi it’s like turning back time to dial up.

In the air gap, passengers are isolated from social, shut out of eCommerce, and barred from news. The airline’s new app promising personalised service becomes meaningless.

For most urbanites, this is a common irritant, but in the world of high service promises, the air gap is a huge problem, especially for the ‘digital from Duplo’ generation. We have to queue for hours and then submit ourselves to Internet limbo, no wonder some people choose to Skype meetings instead of flying.

Travellers want fast Wi-Fi and power sockets. (That is until Cupertino sorts out the batteries.) You can see how high the need is on people’s hierarchies – they will sit in suits on terminal floors plugged into the cleaner’s wall sockets just to keep their smartphones live that bit longer.

So airlines are changing.

They want the apps to work on board. They want us to shop our way across the Atlantic and they will explore ways to curate networked events in Business Class, matching us with vendors and business partners only seats away. The flight can be part of the conference. Airlines will improve in-flight meal service, perhaps like the sushi joints with screens you order from.


The familiar seatback screens offering on-demand entertainment will never keep up with the product development cycles of Samsung and Apple so why not concentrate on outstanding connectivity instead? We already see passengers watching their own downloads on their own laptops. Perhaps airlines will simply hand out screens to those that didn’t pack them. After all those airline entertainment channels may as well be in iTunes.

Wi-Fi and the connected plane will offer huge advantages to airlines beyond customer entertainment, improving scheduling, operations and maintenance.

It won’t just be the engines that send data back to the Rolls-Royce engineers to head off problems at the next landing. With the ‘Internet of Things’ the toilets will too. The kitchen will know who wants to be gluten free from Frankfurt to Rome.

If everyone’s phone works on-board then as KLM’s promise of the social airline and the MileHi app suggest, we might even hook up. Swiping right and choosing to switch seats. A digital version of “Do you mind moving we’d like to sit together”.

New etiquette will have to form; Please don’t look at my screen while I do my confidential presentation / order my Whole Foods delivery / Skype my girlfriend. The manners we expect on planes may become outmoded.

Airports and airlines will soon need quiet zones. Some love the air gap, providing an excuse to switch off, think or read. The sequestered flight might be the only chance some executives have to reflect. If this is taken away will air travel lose some of its appeal? They say David Bowie survived the 70s because at one point he wouldn’t fly, taking the boat across the pond slowed down the madness. Airlines must tread carefully, being always-on might be hard to square with the cues of privacy, luxury and heritage that first and business class flights trade on.

Wi-Fi gives, but it also taketh away.

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