Will there be a quiet coach on the plane?

One of the joys (or pains, depending on your point of view) of travelling by air is the prolonged period that you’ll have without access to the internet. At the end  of the flight, that enforced ‘radio silence’ is then broken as the cabin fills with the sound of beeps and noises as passengers desperately go back on line and reconnect with…whoever they were connected with when the aircrew told them to turn their device off at take-off.

Well, it looks like those days are coming to an end. A recent newspaper article suggests that European airlines are now ‘rushing to install internet connectivity in an attempt to catch up with their US and Gulf rivals’.

It seems that, partly because of the longer time spent in the air (the average US domestic flight time is 2 hours and 4 minutes compared with an average in Western Europe of 1 hour and 46 minutes) that the US is moving more swiftly ahead in installing this technology. In fact, United Airlines claims that it offers wireless internet on 85% of its fleet.

Mind you, the lower costs associated here may play a role too. Flying over oceans and mountain ranges means that European airlines have to install more expensive, satellite-based technology (at a cost of as much as $400,000 per aircraft!) compared with the cheaper air-to-ground network that US airlines can use. Their service, run by gogo, costs about $80,000 per plane so a significant reduction.

But where the US and Middle Eastern airlines go (fly?), the European airlines are forced to go too. Last October, Emirates decided to give a limited amount of free Wifi on its service and promptly saw a five-fold increase in usage. That’s because virtually everyone brings on board an internet-enabled device of some sort or another. Airplane manufacturer Airbus estimates that 97% of passenger board with at least one device whilst it estimates that twenty per cent board with three! (No wonder sales of books are plummeting).

And it does seem perverse that passengers are being encouraged by the airlines to do everything – up to the moment they step on board – using their smart device, be it searching online for a ticket, paying for it, booking the seat or even checking in. So to then expect the same net-savvy passengers to then switch off seems a little, well, contrary.

Rising passenger expectations means that the airlines must make these investments if they are to keep up with their competitors. Norwegian and Aer Lingus are already in the vanguard here and Easy Jet has gone on record as saying that its ‘concerns were close to being solved’. (Read that as ‘the technology just got cheaper’).

Trust Michael O’Leary, Chief Executive of Ryanair to stay firmly seated at the back of the coach in the laggards section. He has been quoted as saying that “people won’t pay the costs of it on a one-hour flight”. Well let’s see. Have you ever seen the anguish on a teenager’s face when told to switch off their mobile?

Of course, the airlines could benefit too. Removing heavy seat-back screens and the associated equipment that must be carried onboard could result in significant weight savings leading to less fuel burn and so save fuel costs. WestJet, a low-cost Canadian airline has already gone down this route and removed all the seatback screens from its entire fleet of 737s. Its chief executive believes this move will save the airline C$19m in fuel burn as well as giving his passengers greater control over ‘their’ entertainment.

For both Airbus and Boeing, the goal is then to have content streamed to each passenger’s individual device. Interestingly, what’s holding them back is not the technology providers but the content providers (ie the studios) who worry about their content being captured and shared.

Notably, none of the airlines have yet announced plans to introduce quiet coaches. But you never know…


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