United Airlines plans to launch inflight Internet on its Boeing 747 flights between Australia and the US this year, along with the introduction of streaming video and music for passenger's own devices such as tablets and laptops.
The airline will begin rolling out a fleet-wide upgrade for wireless Internet and content streaming mid-year, and will prioritise its international Boeing 747s "because we especially want to improve the entertainment factor for our economy customers" explains Alison Espley, General Manager of Australia and New Zealand for United Airlines.
Espley told Australian Business Traveller that she "certainly hoped" the system would be available on United's Australian 747 flights by the end of the year, "but we don't have a schedule as yet."
United's Boeing 747s which fly from Sydney and Melbourne to Los Angeles and San Francisco rely on a dozen ceiling-mounted screens for the economy and economy plus cabins, rather than using the more modern alternative of individual in-seat displays with video-on-demand.
In late 2010 Jeff Smisek, president and CEO of United Airlines, admitted to Australian Business Traveller that "the back of the product on the 747 that United flies to Australia is not an acceptable level of product.” Smisek admits.
“And I know that, I recognise that. But United on its own didn’t have the money to invest in that product. Now (with the United-Continental merger) it does, and we will.”
Smisek is now making good on his word, with the Boeing 747s gaining not only wireless streaming (similar to Qantas' recent Q Streaming trial on a domestic Boeing 767) but also a satellite-based Internet service.
The streaming wireless system will deliver the same programming as the first class and business class cabins to every passenger in economy – provided they've got a notebook, tablet or smartphone which can tap into the aircraft's network of on-board wifi hotspots which feed into a dedicated 'content server' box.
You'll also want to ensure your notebook is fully charged up, because without in-seat AC sockets in economy you'll only be able to enjoy United's streaming video for as long as the battery lasts, and that's not much past 5-6 hours on most laptops.
It's understood that United has no plans to supply devices for passengers travelling sans tech.
United Airlines considered handing out personal media players along the lines of an iPod Touch or even a compact tablet, and even trialled Microsoft's Zune HD player on flights between the US, Hong Kong and Australia, renting the Zune pre-loaded with content for US$10.
At the time, Espley told Australian Business Traveller that "when we tested the provision of personal media players the take-up was very positive, and I’m very hopeful that we will be able to take the decision to introduce these on both of our trans-Pacific services in the near future.”
However, Espley now says that the explosive growth of tablets, smartphones, notebooks and low-cost netbooks changed the way United looked at in-flight entertainment.
"The experience we had was that increasingly everybody has their own mobile device" she says. "You can see them on the train and the bus and at the cafe. Almost everybody has a device with them, so this is the most practical way to move forward."