Southwest Airlines eyes next steps for improving inflight Wi-Fi


Southwest Airlines has no intention of remaining idle as next generation inflight connectivity technology comes to market. The carrier, which currently offers Global Eagle Entertainment’s Ku-band satellite-supported Wi-Fi service for $8 per session, assures RGN it will continue to enhance the product for its passengers, “so whatever we can do to enhance that for the customer, we’ll try to figure it out”.

Figuring it out could mean adopting Global Eagle’s next generation Ku antenna technology. Making good on its promise to select a more advanced antenna in 2015, and facing unfavorable comparisons to rivals Gogo and Panasonic Avionics – which last year announced development of new Ku antennas that appeared to place them on the bleeding edge of technological change – Global Eagle recently revealed it has tapped its antenna provider, Qest, to develop a new system that will operate at all latitudes, including equatorial.

The new antenna will work with Global Eagle’s existing radome and is compatible with its supplemental type certificates (STCs); so yes, it will fit under the current hump atop aircraft operated by Southwest Airlines and other Global Eagle customers should they want to simply upgrade to the new antenna, according to Global Eagle VP of investor relations Kevin Trosian. It will also be fully compatible with current Ku satellites and optimized for use when Ku-band High Throughput Satellites (HTS) are launched, and with them the promise of faster speeds at a lower cost per bit.

But Global Eagle’s traditional Qest-made antenna, which is installed on Southwest’s 737s, also “will be compatible with Ku HTS through a simple hardware change that is very minor, so when we shift to Ku HTS, the carriers can still use the existing antenna set-up that they have”, says Trosian.

This will no doubt come as welcome news to Southwest, which in a recent interview with RGN said it has “definitely been talking with Global Eagle about HTS and how that’s going to play out down the road and how that could affect what we have in place today, and what we can do to take advantage of that”.

Southwest manager Wi-Fi/IFE & product operations Kevin Kleist admits that providing inflight connectivity to passengers is a balancing act for the carrier, as it must be mindful of its costs while trying to offer a good passenger experience (#PaxEx). So far, the carrier’s Wi-Fi service has received decidedly mixed reports from passengers, leaving some industry observers to wonder whether Southwest is spending enough on Ku capacity to support a solid service.

“We’re trying to [provide] as much bandwidth as possible, but it’s so costly and what’s the right balance to provide a good customer experience but not charge so much that it’s not worth it for the customer,” says Kleist.

He adds, “I think customers overall are satisfied with the Wi-Fi and getting what they need to get done in-flight. Is it where we want it to be? A lot is coming up in the industry to make changes to [make] that experience be more consistent. But overall we’re happy what we have in-flight. What we’re providing to our customer is really a benefit to them and they’re loving it … entertainment and Wi-Fi.” Southwest complements its Wi-Fi with free live and on-demand television and pay-per-view movies streamed to passengers’ own devices.

Interestingly, Kleist says Southwest is also eyeing “some other things that are coming up, and with the recent 2Ku that Gogo has talked about, there is a lot going on… We’re just continuing to enhance the product for the customer, so whatever we can do to enhance that for the customer, we’ll try to figure it out ….if that means the world will go to Ka, we’ll have to explore those options.”

But he stresses that the airline has been very happy with its partner Global Eagle. “When they got into the game, we took a chance on a new company. They work hand-in-hand with us, and we work hand-in-hand with them, and that partnership has been very good so right now we’re happy with it. As they come out with new tech, new software and hardware, they are keeping us up-to-date and apprised of it.”

If the end result is a better #PaxEx, we applaud their efforts.

[Photo at top credited to Jason Rabinowitz, aka @AirlineFlyer on Twitter]