Digital Business at 30,000 ft

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.


Thanks, stock photo man

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.

Digital Boarding:

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…tumblr_nvieajspzy1tfw5ljo1_400


Wi-Fi! DirecTV!

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.


Extra credit for reference appreciation


Airline app offerings

United 737-900 Statistics

Planes without screens

Netflix via Gogo

Airplane mode

How flight wifi works



  1. Digital Boarding: Interesting how different airlines prioritize offerings. I wonder if BA is targeting repeat customers with the promotions to get future sales, or if they are luring already booked passengers to upgrade? The digital boarding pass is a great feature, and I’m surprised BA doesn’t offer this for flights departing the US.

    Entertainment: I liked your historical narrative on the entertainment in planes. Funny and well written. It is interesting how we used to watch as a community of passengers, and now we are independently entertained, while sitting right next to each other. Reminds me going out to eat with a group of people, many of whom are all staring at their phones and texting.

    Wi-Fi! DirecTV!: Good description of the 3 types of wi-fi available. I learned something new from you on the Ka-band type. Want to invest in the company launching theses satellites and creating the best network orbiting the planet?

  2. Interesting topic- it is amazing how airlines have integrated digital business into flights that take place 30,000 ft above the ground. Airlines have completely transitioned their business model in order to align with the evolution of the digital era- through the likes of Wifi, TV, etc. I think another area where digital business has expanded the airline industry is through site likes Expedia, Hipmunk, etc. These platforms allow you to compare flights from different airlines, websites, etc in order to get the best price. You can add a setting to determine which day would be the cheapest to fly, alternative airports, etc. None of this would be possible without the growing popularity of these businesses on mobile platforms. This may have implications for competition between airline companies as well- as customers can see which airlines are charging the most, the least, and determine a best flight path based on this information.

  3. cattybradley · ·

    Digital tools have made traveling so much better in my opinion! Your post really highlights the amazing way airlines have digitized. I value the wifi capabilities and the airline’s app highest. I think being able work online while in flight is a huge time saver especially for those traveling for work. As for the apps, I wonder if there are any statistics showing decreases in customer service calls since a lot of airline apps offer easy ways to cancel or reschedule flights. One other way I think airlines have changed for the better with technology is that they are now more accessible through their social media channels. Their social media sites are kind of like news sites informing travelers of delays and addressing customer concerns. Overall, great post!

  4. daniellep2153 · ·

    Awesome post. Going through the check-in line can take so long. I personally check-in online to avoid this line. Like you mentioned, it saves so much time to do this instead of having to wait in line for an hour. I’m also someone who gets restless on flights. Having multiple options of in-flight entertainment helps keep me occupied and makes the flight seem faster. Overall, I know my flying experience would be much worse without these digital conveniences and I look forward to seeing what they come up with next.

  5. michaelahoff · ·

    Great blog Austin. I look forward to shelling out way too much money for Ka-Band! At least I’ll be able to watch what I want while paying a small fortune for that precious few hours of entertainment.

  6. Nice post. I do confess that those I consider to be the best airlines (Delta, Jetblue, Southwest) have all made strong efforts in digital business to improve their service.

  7. jagpalsingh03 · ·

    Nice post! I haven’t been on a plane that has removed it’s screens but that seems like such a simple and effective idea. On the other hand, I tend to fly Jet Blue pretty often and I have never gotten their WiFi to work for me, not even once. So if my only source of entertainment required WiFi on a Jet Blue flight, I would probably ask for a refund. I don’t use the Jet Blue app but I love how the calendar app on my iPhone will automatically add flights to my schedule and send me updates. I hope more airlines will continue to incorporate tech into their business (in a way that works).

  8. Nice post! I still find that airline internet is not up to on the ground standards, but I’m sure it will get there sooner rather than later. I’m also interested to see if the airlines gain fuel effficiencies by not having to put tvs on the airline.

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