JetBlue, Continental break from the pack on IFEC strategy

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Focused on offering passengers live satellite television over seat-back screens and basic email connectivity, Continental Airlines and JetBlue Airways' in-flight entertainment and connectivity (IFEC) strategies differ from many of their US competitors.

"If everyone is zigging on in-flight internet, then Continental Airlines and JetBlue Airways are zagging," says Nate Quigley, chief executive of JetBlue subsidiary LiveTV, which supplies the two carriers - and a raft of other customers - with live television systems.

JetBlue has always offered live television free of charge and believes the service gives it a competitive edge. But a few years ago, management decided to let "the eagle out of the canary cage" by allowing LiveTV to sell its products indiscriminately.

LiveTV secured its first US legacy airline customer when Continental signed up to install the firm's newest live television system, LTV3, across its Boeing domestic fleet.

Offering nearly 80 channels of live television - at a fee of $6 in economy and free in first class - LTV3 trumps JetBlue's current 36-channel offering from a technological standpoint. If content licenses can be arranged, LTV3 could one day bring as many as 200 channels into Continental's aircraft cabins, says Quigley.

To augment their live television service, JetBlue and Continental intend to roll out LiveTV's basic, air-to-ground (ATG)-based Kiteline email system, which has been trialled on a single JetBlue A320 since December 2007. But, unlike many of their counterparts in the US airline industry, neither carrier has formalised a plan to offer in-flight broadband internet.

"It is clear that the trend is going in the direction of Wi-Fi," says Continental chief executive Larry Kellner. "It is unclear how heavy that usage is. Our goal has been to get LiveTV on our domestic fleet and to get BlackBerrys to work, so basically you could get BlackBerrys or iPhones that have wireless capabilities and get those messages - that's what Kiteline is.

"Our hope is we do that at no charge. If we need a broader-band solution, and we'll watch and listen to our customers, we'll put one on. We'd like to do that in concert with LiveTV if that's the decision on where we need to go."

Quigley says LiveTV intends to become an important player in the in-flight broadband industry. "But we think the trends on the ground really matter," he adds. "On the ground, people want more and more bits and are willing to pay less and less for it. The connectivity you put on the airplane now is going to have to stay there for a long time."

To that end, the company now believes the bandwidth and costs associated with bringing Ka-band connectivity to the USA are more attractive than those of the air-to-ground and Ku-band-based in-flight broadband systems provided by Aircell and Row 44, respectively.

"We think Aircell doesn't have enough bits and Row 44's bits will be too expensive. With Ka, I think you can finally make the business model work," says Quigley, noting that there is already a Ka satellite infrastructure in place, and new Ka satellites will be launched in 2010 and 2011.

"I just don't think anyone should be surprised if a Ka-band solution flies in 2010," he adds