In the past several weeks, there have been significant major announcements made by airline executives regarding the future of the passenger experience onboard aircraft worldwide. These announcements represent some noteworthy improvements in terms of comfort and amenities that will soon be available in the coming years, and mark a small but vital paradigm shift.
For years, the U. S. airline business model has lagged behind international airlines, in large part due to those foreign carriers’ access to their government subsidies that the free market U.S. businesses have limited access to. As reflective of the latest downturn in the U. S. economy, and still reeling from the devastating effects of the 9/11 attacks in 2001, the U. S. airline business model has produced billions of dollars in losses, several high-profile bankruptcy reorganizations, and the loss of several airline companies altogether. Add to that massive increases in jet fuel that have made profit margins razor thin, if anything at all, thus preventing these companies from reinvesting in their own product offerings.
After the mergers of US Airways to America West, Delta to Northwest and United to Continental, it appears that a moderate but fragile turnaround is beginning to take shape and modest profit margins have begun to give these airlines the reinvestment capital needed to make vital upgrades in their products.
Shortly after the Delta-Northwest combination, the new Delta began installing WiFi services on its entire fleet. Right after Southwest combined with AirTran, they too announced plans to offer WiFi services on selected flights within their fleet. Both Continental and United had announced the acquisition of brand new aircraft orders for both the Boeing 787 Dreamliner and the Airbus AWB-350 wide-body planes, equipped with all the latest in-flight entertainment systems, as well as newly re-designed seating and overhead bins. These orders have now been combined to represent the single largest new aircraft order for an American carrier, allowing the new United to virtually upgrade its entire wide-body fleet within 10 years. And just last week, United announced the implementation of Internet access worldwide through a new collaboration with Panasonic that will give UAL an unprecedented WiFi and streaming video entertainment system in its fleet that will be accessible worldwide.
While these improvements are encouraging, the foreign carriers are not sitting idly by. A similar arrangement with Panasonic was just announced by Emirates. Combined with such amenities as luxury first class suites, butler services and private quarters for those who can afford them, it may never be practical for any U. S. airline to follow suit.
With more and more demands being lodged by the airlines’ most loyal customers, executives are beginning to take note and base future business forecasts on the gamble that upgrading their amenities in the near future will help solidify their positions as the most recognized airline brands in the world.
From live TV to video conferencing calls to something as basic as power outlets to help keep electronic devices charged on long flights, the future comfort factors among frequent airline passengers isn’t too far off.
Currently, Delta Airlines offers in-flight WiFi service on its entire fleet via the Gogo Inflight Internet service for a nominal fee. Other carriers which offer this airplane-to-ground uplink include Virgin America, Alaska, Frontier and U.S. Airways. United Airlines offers this service on its “P.S.” branded transcontinental flights between New York City and San Francisco or Los Angeles.
As mentioned earlier, United recently entered into a mutual collaboration with Panasonic Avionics Corporation to equip its entire fleet with a “Ku-band” air-to-satellite ultra-high-speed internet and streaming service that will allow its passengers some exciting new options during flight, including streaming video and “voice over IP” (VoIP) services. Since this technology doesn’t rely on ground relay technology, United customers will be able to utilize this new service from anywhere in the world UAL flies, including long-haul transoceanic flights, without interruption. United expects to have the refit completed by 2015.
As the decade marches forward, travelers can look forward to the airlines fighting harder for your travel dollar by upgrading other aspects of their business models, including upgraded club facilities, express lanes at airport security checkpoints and continued redesign and upgraded airline seats.
As long as the airline sector continues to improve, the future of airline travel is beginning to brighten a bit.