United struggles to roll out consistent inflight Wi-Fi


Which major airline do you think of when it comes to innovation in the inflight connectivity market? Odds are it is not United Airlines. The carrier was the last major in the United States to commit to a fleet-wide solution. The dedicated p.s. sub-fleet of 757s runs the Gogo-based ATG service, and has for several years, but beyond those few planes there was nothing available until January 2013. At that point the first planes with satellite-based connectivity took to the skies, promising higher speeds, unique service offerings and much more. Unfortunately the carrier failed early on to deliver on those promises.

Over the intervening time United has mostly kept quiet about the issues. There have been changes to the offerings onboard such as pulling the tiered speed solutions out of service; but, for the most part, the company has simply pressed forward with its installs, hoping to get the kit on the aircraft while it separately works to resolve the troubles which have plagued the airline. When asked for comments about the product quality United remains quiet, unwilling to share much of anything. Recent conversations with United’s service providers, Panasonic Avionics (Ku) and ViaSat (Ka), have provided much more color on the challenges faced by United and why their customers are still wondering when the service will be dependable.

Speaking to RGN at the Aircraft Interiors Expo in Hamburg last week, David Bruner, Panasonic’s VP Global Communications Services, offered up a number of details on the difficulty Panasonic has had in meeting United’s needs on their Ku-band satellite service. “One of the things that is interesting about United…is that they want a common experience across all of [the fleet] so we actually allocate massive bandwidth to those airplanes, but the problem – and it really was our problem – was delivering it fairly to users. So what was happening was one guy on the plane was rocking and having a great experience and these other people were not having a great experience. We needed to be able to figure out [how to] get this fair across all users on an aircraft and between all aircraft and it has taken us a while to put all that together, to deliver that for [United].”

Turns out that there was more than just delivering bandwidth to the plane; Panasonic had to control the individual user experience, something it had apparently not done for other customers. United also wanted options like tiered access with some users getting higher speeds for more money. The tiered plans were available at launch but disappeared from the pricing portal within weeks. Bruner was quite clear that it was the infrastructure which failed, not the offering, “You don’t do that on the airplane, you do it on the ground, and we have to do a lot of work around infrastructure to manage this experience better for them. And what they want to do is kinda cool, so the onus is on us to figure out ‘Okay, how do you do this?’ It has taken us 24 months to figure out how to do it for them.” That is a huge amount of time in the IFEC space where progress is measured in months, not years.

Bruner also explained that United’s ideas and plans for using the system did not come as a surprise to Panasonic. The company knew of the requirements but struggled to deliver, “We had to go invent stuff on the airplane and on the ground to do this much, much more effectively. They were very clear in what they wanted; it has taken us a while to figure out how to do it for them.”

ViaSat and LiveTV have faced similar challenges with United. Getting the system functional in the skies is one thing, but meeting United’s advanced requirements was a challenge here as well. And it isn’t that United is pushing too hard but that the technology wasn’t necessarily designed with the usage pattern in mind. For Meherwan Polad of ViaSat, the experimentation United has been doing with the system has been both challenging and beneficial, “[United] wants to experiment; they want to see how they can really maximize the value. I think we’re going to make some really good progress with United in figuring out where to take the service. We’re in a phase where we’re working with them to see what we can do and I think we’re going to take a few cuts at it. We’ve got the capacity, we’ve got the price point so we can really experiment with that; we really like experimentation.”

With both LiveTV/ViaSat and Panasonic suggesting that they’re through the teething pains with getting the service up to United’s standards, what does the airline have to say? Turns out not too much. The airline refused multiple requests for comment on the topic.

United deserves credit for pushing the limits on what the inflight connectivity providers can offer. The carrier is legitimately working to provide a better solution to its customers. And the struggles of the providers are very real, though both parties believe they’ve finally met United’s needs. The next several months will be critical for all parties involved as they work to implement the solutions developed and customers continue to look for a reliable, consistent offering.