December 4, 2021

On the Road: Fast Wi-Fi on Flights May Serve the Airlines, Too

You remember Steven Slater, the fed-up JetBlue Airways flight attendant who got on the cabin speaker after his flight landed at Kennedy Airport and declared, “That’s it. I’m done”? He then grabbed two Blue Moon beers from the galley, deployed the emergency chute and slid away into infamy. Ever since, many an unhappy flight attendant has told me she’s sometimes quietly considered pulling a Slater.

Recently, on a crowded plane approaching Dallas, I watched a flight attendant collect trash in a bag with one hand while using her fingertips to hold five empty soda cans for recycling, while simultaneously checking that seat backs were in the forward position for landing. I wondered, could the airlines possibly manage to give more chores to crew members?

Why certainly! You may have read recent news reports about proposals by regulators to devote more airwave capacity to providing faster Wi-Fi connections on commercial airplanes. You may have assumed that those initiatives, in the United States and abroad, are intended mainly to allow passengers to use the Web and e-mail more efficiently.

But the fact is, despite the rapid expansion of Wi-Fi on airplanes, no one has found a profitable way to cover installation costs with the scant revenue generated by the limited number of passengers who have been willing to pay for Internet service at 35,000 feet.

The great advances in airplane Internet connections are being driven far more by the opportunities that high-speed broadband service presents for airlines themselves to essentially sell more things to the customers, whether the product is in-flight entertainment, food and drink, customized services to elite-status passengers or products at the destination, including hotel packages, sports and concert tickets, restaurant and theater reservations. On an airplane, you have a captive market, and with sophisticated technology, you can sell to passengers in very personal ways.

And, of course, flight attendants will be expected to become even more adept at using in-flight technology. The question is whether they will embrace the moment.

“We found consistently in our research, whether the markets were the U.S., Europe or Asia, that flight attendants are typically the least automated group within the airline work force,” said Andrew Kemmetmueller, the chief executive of Allegiant Systems, a technology development company that focuses on airline operations.

Allegiant Systems, based in Las Vegas, recently announced FlyDesk, a product that has an iPad-based application for processing food and beverage sales on flights. The company expects that FlyDesk’s iPad technology will evolve into many other uses in the hands of flight attendants, Mr. Kemmetmueller said.

Besides direct product sales, opportunities for customer service expand when flight attendants have in their hands not just recycled soda cans, but tablets linked by high-speed Wi-Fi to real-time flight and customer data.

“Buy on board is only one aspect. I live in Toulouse,” he said, referring to the city in France, “but have a base of operations in Las Vegas, which puts me on planes a lot.” As airlines market more flights in partnership with other airlines belonging to the same global alliance, a single long-haul flight to Las Vegas could entail a domestic European flight from Toulouse to Frankfurt, a trans-Atlantic flight on a Lufthansa A380 to San Francisco and then a domestic connection on United Airlines to Las Vegas.

Mr. Kemmetmueller echoes a familiar complaint among international passengers that partner airlines in a global alliance like Star Alliance aren’t especially adept at sharing detailed information about individual passengers and their status. United Airlines, for example, might have detailed information about the status and service requirements of a given elite passenger, but tablet-enabled technology in the hands of flight crews would make that data available for each leg of an alliance trip.

With major improvements in Wi-Fi, we’re only starting to see some of the ramifications for passengers and airlines, which depend mightily on the revenue raised by selling and marketing things other than the basic fare.

But what about that overburdened flight attendant trudging down the aisle with a stuffed trash bag?

In my experience, flight attendants complain about everything, even more so than those world-famous complainers, pilots. But Mr. Kemmetmueller insisted that putting sophisticated technology into the hands of the flight crew, and encouraging crew members to adapt it as they saw fit, overcame even dug-in resistance to performing more chores because the chores became easier. “I think an iPad trumps all,” he said.

Next we need an app to address those empty soda cans.


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