Airline Technology Review

By | November 30, 2008
New interior on Delta Air Lines' Boeing 737-80...

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Airlines are constantly looking at new forms of technology. How they can automate processes, how theycan add features to increase their competitiveness…

Brett Snyder, the Cranky Flier himself, visited LiveTV, the In-Flight Entertainment company which is a wholly-owned subsidiary of JetBlue Airways. They are preparing to start installing a comprehensive in-flight TV system on Continental Airlines aircraft. It is superior to the systems currently in place on other airlines, including owner JetBlue. Notable differences: There will now be 80 channels onboard instead of the current 36,  they’ll have a program guide instead of making you flip through channels to find what you want, and the screen is now 8″ widescreen instead of the current 6.8″ screen.

The first plane will be outfitted around the 1st of the year and it will then take a few months for the FAA to approve it. Then they can deploy it to the rest of their fleet. Notable improvements for the infrastructure: the old one was so big it had to go in the belly of the plane, but the new one fits in an overhead bin and weights a third less; New channels can now be added without having to add additional hardware, unlike before; It will now take 2 to 3 days to install instead of the current 4 to 5 days.

LiveTV has also started agreeing to install the equipment at almost all their expense in exchange for the revenue from it, allowing airlines who otherwise couldn’t afford the system to install it if they let LiveTV charge for it.

He also reports they are having trouble figuring out a good business model for onboard internet. They have three levels of internet access already planned out. The first is already flying on a single JetBlue aircraft (with the rest of the fleet to follow next year). It includes email, and a few other limited things like Yahoo IM. The second is called Oasis and is designed to be a portal that has a ton of stored news and other content (refreshed while on the ground) with bandwidth being used to update time-sensitive information like sports scores, news headlines, etc in the air. This would work well, as bandwidth is very expensive in the air. The third is standard broadband Internet.

LiveTV isn’t quite sure the model alternate companies are pushing of $10-$20 per flight internet access will work. They are prepared to offer it as an option, however. Within the US, no airline is going to absorb the costs of full broadband access, so either the people pay, or advertisers pay. While some people are willing to pay, they aren’t sure if enough people will.

People may be more likely to buy on longer flights, as by the time you get into the air, and your laptop booted up on a short flight, you’ve landed. Yet Delta is planning to install internet on its MD-88 fleet, older and less efficient aircraft most other airlines will be replacing in the coming years which are mostly used on shorter routes.

The conclusion seems to be that LiveTV, aware of all the issues, is proceeding with caution. The costs of adding the equipment are low, because unlike in flight TV, there is not an installation at every seat.The exception may be power ports of any kind, be it USB charging or otherwise, which are lacking on most airlines and would be needed to support electronics on longer flights.

Either way, we, like LiveTV, will watch and wait.

By comparison to LiveTV, here’s a review of Gogo service, which is available on American flights between New York and San Francisco, LAX, and Miami. and expanded to Delta Air Lines, Virgin America, and Air Canada.

In other tech news, JetBlue is apparently on Twitter, and providing good customer service there, as this Consumerist article points out.

As a final tech note, let’s review Mobile Boarding Passes as a concept. In an effort to speed passengers at the airport, you can send a boarding pass to your cell phone, which includes a two-dimensional barcode.  American, Delta, and Continental are testing the system at select airports, in conjuction with the TSA. If the airlines can agree on a standardized barcode format and reader, and if proper precautions are in place to prevent altering these barcocdes, this system could be deployed around the country very easily.

What other new airline tech are you interested in hearing about or telling us about? Send us a comment.

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