Mobile shapes expectations for passengers

SmartSky - Finally WifI that Wows

The distinctive dial-up tone of a 14.4 Modem will forever be buried in the back of my mind. Skip half a decade and you have broadband and WiFi everywhere and sending a note to your significant other on your mobile device may look more like: “I love it, can u buy it 4 me pls, tnx, YLH” (I love it, can you buy it for me please, thanks, Your Loving Husband)!

I remember walking into a coffee shop expecting nothing more than a simple coffee. It didn’t take long before my coffee came with expectations, a Wi-Fi connection! I didn’t care for the coffee, I just wanted to lug around my 7lb ThinkPad to go online, that, to me, was Mobile!

January 9th, 2007, the iPhone was born and people suddenly had a practical mobile browser, me included. At home on Wi-Fi the device was great for browsing, but on GPRS and Edge network that awkward 14.4 dial-up tone would keep haunting me somehow. Unless imperative, I wouldn’t bother using Edge to surf, I would wait until Wi-Fi was available.

Hotspots started popping up everywhere, not only in coffee shops, but airports and hotels. Prices for online access started to decrease and eventually became free. Fast forward to today, SoC’s (system on chip), SSD’s (solid state drive) and LTE (long term evolution) and you have 50% of the average global mobile users using their mobile devices as a primary device to go online.


However, our dependency on these networks has become overwhelming. For example, Rogers/Fido, a Canadian-based carrier with over 9.4M customers, had a total network outage in 2013. It only lasted a few hours, but many people went into a state of panic and anxiety; myself included. It was unacceptable to be disconnected for a few hours.

To me the carrier’s network outage was like a déjà vu while on a flight from AMS to CYUL at 32,000 feet a few days before. I don’t think I’m alone! In 2013, 643 Million airline passengers probably shared some of my anxiety of total disconnect. I call it FOMO syndrome (fear of missing out).

I’m a pilot and love anything aviation related, so for the most part of my flights as a passenger I’m typically distracted by the experience of flying itself. I also consider it my down-time. Then thoughts start to sprout. What would I be doing on the ground in my down time? A.k.a Mental chewing gum. What emails did I miss, current events, what’s new on, and I wish I had downloaded that podcast before I boarded. Ultimately this feeds into my expectation of always being connected, an unfair sense of entitlement starts to ignite.

But the online disconnect in the air is changing. Wi-Fi on planes is starting to pick up and evolve just as it did some years ago starting in coffee shops.  Inflight Wi-Fi is now accessible on around 40% of US flights, paid or free. I was on a flight recently before the FAA removed the restrictions on PEDs in-flight, and the second the seat-belt sign went off I jumped on the Wi-Fi trying to secure my 3.1 Mbit connection that in a few seconds was just about to be split between 200 other passengers in my immediate vicinity. Not fun or fast! Most certainly slow connection speeds will be short-lived, and airlines around the world will soon need to meet our expectations of suitable connectivity.

Now, imagine having a FaceTime or Skype conversation from 35,000 feet or having an app detect another flight within your proximity that just encountered CAT (clear air turbulence) and sends you a warning push notification. There are all sorts of neat applications that can be designed around air travel. I’ve tracked my own flight with ForeFlight, looked at the weather ahead, managed to book a rental car, all traveling at Mach .8!

Our desire to stay connected is greater than ever, and [for many] it is not currently a determining factor for choosing an airline today. But in the very near future, it will lead to passengers choosing the airline that keeps them connected over one that doesn’t. The cost of free public Wi-Fi has already been addressed on the ground. Walk into a local Starbucks, connect, and you’ll have video or text based ads before allowing you to surf. A very simple monetization model. Airlines can offset the cost of integration and operation with an already established model. They might even have better luck; 100 people stuck in their seats for long periods of time, let them be online and place ads intermittently, sound familiar? I personally wouldn’t mind, give me internet at FL300 that will allow me to watch my favorite YouTube channels, download a podcast or two (airlinepilotguy or airplanegeeks) while surfing the web, and I’m a happy flyer.

Arash MahinAbout the author, Arash Mahin

Arash Mahin, is a pilot with more than 15 years experience in the IT space, specializing in mobile, social media application development, cloud computing and virtualization.

With his passion for aviation and ability to implement technology in many business settings, he is constantly working toward innovative approaches to help and improve the aviation industry through application and mobile development.