The quest to give airline passengers a decent online connection has been slow. Most of us don’t even use the Internet when we fly, given the high prices and typically slow, spotty service—current systems can’t handle a plane full of Web surfers anyway. JetBlue Airways (JBLU), which is rolling out a broadband Internet service, says that won’t be the case on its flights. The carrier plans to have its full fleet of almost 200 jets equipped with fast Wi-Fi by the end of 2015.
Currently the airline’s basic Web surfing and e-mail access is free, which has boosted the service’s adoption rate. Some JetBlue Wi-Fi flights have had as many as 136 devices connected simultaneously on its 150-seat Airbus A320s, typically on trips between Boston and San Francisco, where the uptake has been highest, says Jamie Perry, JetBlue’s director of product development. Still, in-flight broadband presents three problems that JetBlue—and presumably rivals who adopt faster Internet—will need to address for the service to pay off.
1. Power outlets at each seat. Internet connections quickly drain batteries, which means passengers will be looking to plug in, Perry says. JetBlue’s newest plane, the A321, has an AC power plug at each seat. The A320 does not, although JetBlue will replace the seats on those planes with the slimmer model used on the larger jet. Until then, power problems and dead iPads could proliferate among travelers on some flights.
2. Performance complaints. JetBlue’s satellite-based system from ViaSat (VSAT) was deployed by the carrier only six months ago and has occasional performance hiccups. (Travel blogger Seth Miller detailed one odd Internet situation that occurred last month on a JetBlue flight to Phoenix.) The airline’s free basic Web and e-mail service may lead to more customer complaints, because more passengers will use the service than on a typical Delta (DAL) or American (AAL) flight where travelers pay to connect. But with a $9 hourly charge for JetBlue’s premium-level access, which includes video and audio streaming, people who pay $20 to $50 or more per flight will demand good service—and want a refund if they don’t get it.
3. Broken tray tables. Decent Internet connections mean more people will work on long flights, increasing PC use on planes. That, in turn, will lead to more broken tray tables, the typical desk for office drones at 36,000 feet. Why? “Because people are banging away on the laptops,” Perry says. It’s likely an airline with speedy Internet will need to order replacement tray tables more frequently and in larger quantities.