United closes product gap with Airbus streaming IFE

United Airlines has finally flipped the switch, activating streaming in-flight entertainment on the majority of its Airbus A320 family fleet.

Source: United Airlines

Source: United Airlines

Streaming entertainment is live on 72%, or 110 aircraft, out of the 152 A319s and A320s in the Chicago-based carrier’s fleet, said Jeff Foland, executive vice-president of marketing, technology and strategy at United, on the sidelines of the Boyd Group International Aviation Summit in Las Vegas.

United quietly activated the service on the Airbuses in early July, he says. Streaming entertainment is also available on all of its 23 Boeing 747-400s and a select number of the 74 Boeing 777-200s that fly to Hawaii.

“This is rolling out very quickly [now],” says Foland. “The time consuming part was laying down all the infrastructure, which is coterminous with the wi-fi infrastructure.”

It is about time.

United first announced plans to offer streaming in-flight entertainment on aircraft without in-seat video monitors in October 2013. However, as Foland points out, the roll out was tied to installation of wi-fi on its aircraft, which took longer than expected due to regulatory approval issues.

In the mean time, Delta Air Lines launched mostly free streaming in-flight entertainment on all aircraft with 70 seats or more – this includes regional jets operated by carriers like Endeavor Airlines and SkyWest Airlines – without personal video monitors on 1 August. It also offers wi-fi across its mainline and some of its regional fleet.

American Airlines, despite being in the midst of its merger with US Airways, is also ahead of United in many ways. Wi-fi is nearly ubiquitous across both the American and US Airways mainline fleets and power outlets are available on widebody aircraft and most American legacy domestic aircraft. It does not offer a streaming in-flight entertainment option but something could be in the offing as it evaluates ways to bring the legacy US Airways domestic narrowbody fleet up to the standard of legacy American.

“We need to be competitive,” said Doug Parker, chairman and chief executive of American, in an interview with Flightglobal in July. “We always monitor what our major competitors are doing in order to make sure, in total, that we have a product that is superior across all attributes.”

United is certainly catching up. In addition to the streaming entertainment, wi-fi is now active on all Airbus aircraft, 747-400s and premium service Boeing 757-200s. It is also active on the majority of Boeing 737-900ERs and a small percentage of the 737-800s and 777-200s. This equals 302 aircraft, or about 43% of the mainline fleet, as of 22 August, its website shows.

Source: Author

All of the carrier’s mainline fleet will offer wi-fi, in-flight entertainment and power outlets, which are being installed on the A319s and A320s from the exit rows forward as well as on other aircraft, by the end of 2015.

Wi-fi may even come to large regional jets. “We have not made such a decision. We’re evaluating, stay tuned,” says Foland.

Product is the latest battleground for passengers in the USA. American, Delta and United are all investing heavily in their respective in-flight offerings, with industry organisation Airlines for America (A4A) estimating that airlines made $7 billion in capital expenditures, including in new aircraft, and airport and product improvements, in just the first half of 2014.

“There’s a very good chance that [investment] will be equal to or higher than last year,” said John Heimlich, vice-president and chief economist at A4A, earlier in August. US airlines invested $12.4 billion in 2013.

Passengers, especially those who are willing to pay for extra amenities, are benefitting. The period of vastly different product offerings across one airline’s fleet is slowly passing, though the problem of subfleets with an inferior product will persist at United until it completes all of the planned upgrades in 16 months. American faces a similar issue as it considers how to unify the onboard experience across its legacy American and US Airways domestic fleets.

One piece of good news – United’s new streaming entertainment is free and does not require a wi-fi purchase to use. Enjoy it, while you can.

UPDATE, 28 August: US Airways offers Gogo Vision streaming inflight entertainment on select aircraft equipped with wi-fi, Jason Rabinowitz of Routehappy shares. However, the airline does not advertise the service or what aircraft are equipped on its website.

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