Air travel is one of the more stressful activities most of us partake in with some frequency. Long security lines, sneaky baggage fees, inconvenient liquid restrictions, and endless taxiing are just a few things that are sure to give you annoyance or anxiety just thinking about them. And if you are afraid of flying altogether, I cannot even imagine.
Strangely, I actually enjoy flying enough that I tolerate the entire ordeal. Since I was young, I have been fascinated with speed and transportation; the idea of being somewhere one minute, and somewhere completely different the next. And when the taxiing is too long, I just fall asleep.
As someone who spends a significant amount of time looking at flight prices for trips I probably will not be taking any time soon, I figured looking at how digital business has affected this industry would be interesting.
According to a study in 2014, 82% of the top 50 airlines in the world used a mobile app. I personally have 2 airlines represented on my phone; United and British Airways. Looking at both, it is interesting to what each highlights differently. Obviously both feature the ability to look up flights and seat prices, rewards miles, etc. But the British Airways app places promotions prominently, with temporary travel deals to specific cities taking up half the screen. United Airlines, on the other hand, does not have any promotional deals on its app. Instead, one of the key components of the United app is a digital boarding pass; something with great functionality for US customers flying domestically.
I point out US domestic flights because this is where having a digital boarding pass is most effective in my experience. At most busy airports, besides security, check-in is probably the next longest bottleneck in the process. People struggling to remember where they packed their boarding passes, rearranging luggage contents to meet weight restrictions, and many, many, more headaches worth avoiding. By being able to check-in and view your boarding pass via the app, you can skip this step and proceed directly to security upon arrival, so long as you only have a carryon. Of course, on international flights people are more likely to have a large bag that must be checked for storage.
There are a few other simple benefits; for example, on my last flight a few weeks ago, I noticed United had added my flights to my calendar, so that I was alerted to departure times even outside of the app. Even more simply, it is much less likely that you will lose track of your phone than a flimsy paper boarding pass that you printed at home yesterday. But in a time where checked baggage is getting more expensive and more limited, and ultra-budget airlines like Ryanair and EasyJet charge you to print your boarding pass at the airport (along with nearly everything else), a digital boarding pass is another reason to skip a step and travel light.
The evolution of in-flight entertainment within my short lifetime has been pretty substantial. For me, I remember the days of having only 1 film option, shown on an overhead screen every few rows, like a bus. If the film was not to your liking (perhaps, Snakes on a Plane), you could listen to some music. So my first experience on a 777 several years later, headed to Germany, I was elated to find personal screens in the back of every seat, with an array of films and games to choose from. The days of the flying bus were over.
But on many United flights since, the screens are gone, replaced by a smooth grey plastic pod encasing the seat, like a lofty space age design ruined by a tight budget. “Where’d my screen go?” I asked my inner flight attendant. “It’s your mobile device!” replied this inner voice.
United flights now make use of the widespread popularity of smartphones, iPads, and other such devices to display in-flight entertainment. This represents a significant cost savings, since 167 screens per aircraft do not need to be installed on a United-configured Boeing 737-900. Simply go to the app, select entertainment, and choose from one of this year’s hot releases, or maybe a classic. Or in my case, choose nothing, because you’ve been up all night at a Bruce Springsteen concert, and you’re already asleep.
For airlines that have not yet done away with the seatback screens, there is the next best alternative; live TV. On these flights, it is as if you are sitting at home, scrolling through the channels for your favorite show. Or, if that does not interest you, the airline offers a few different movies to watch on its own channels.
But streaming from a database of entertainment, or watching live TV? While flying at 530 mph, 30,000 feet above the ground? How is that possible? Funny you should ask…
Connectivity on a plane is really something incredible these days, despite its current limitations. United for example, only provides Wi-Fi complementary for streaming the in-flight entertainment they provide via the app. They claim you can check email too, but I have never had much success. For full internet access, they want you to cough up some more cash.
Carriers provide Wi-Fi on flights via 3 different technologies. First, and slowest, is Air-to-Ground (ATG), where towers on land transmit the signal to receivers in the aircraft. This is the type of Wi-Fi we are likely to get annoyed at, as it is not very good for anything of significant size. Second is Ku-Band, which is a satellite signal picked up by a dish atop the aircraft, just like a home satellite TV provider. Third is Ka-Band, provided by a satellite from ViaSat, which offers download speeds comparable to your average home network.
The implications of this technology are huge. Imagine you are flying, watching a newly released film, and you receive an iMessage. And imagine you consider the contents of this message, and reply back in 30 seconds. In the 30 seconds it took to craft the perfect response, at the cruising speed of 530 mph, you would have moved 4.4 miles from where you received the message.
As Ka-Band expands to more flights and more satellites, passengers will eventually be able to stream from services they already pay for, like Netflix, Hulu, and HBOGO. You could watch “Airplane!” on an airplane.
And you don’t have to worry about your phone disrupting the navigation or flight systems, but it is best to leave your device on airplane mode and only use Wi-Fi. While your device’s signals have little to no impact on flight technology, when travelling at high speed your phone needs to constantly switch the tower it receives signal from, and this will kill your battery.
But for God’s sake, leave the Furbies and Galaxy Note 7s at home.