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Innovation: Back to the Future

Air carriers live and die by technology. Air passengers love tech that makes their lives easier, such as the tech that supplies entertainment on an otherwise boring flight. When air technology providers get their acts together, carriers soar. Other times they don’t.

Air carriers live and die by technology.

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Air passengers love tech that makes their lives easier, such as the tech that supplies entertainment on an otherwise boring flight. When air technology providers get their acts together, carriers soar. Other times they don’t.

Boeing missed the mark when it went too far into the future with its elaborate service to deliver on-the-fly Internet access (the buzz phrase is “in-flight connectivity”). Boeing called it, modestly, Connexion By Boeing; but the marketing folks behind this broadband service evidently “connexed” with their target audience about as well as they could spell.

Nevertheless, as the character Marty McFly asserted in the 1985 futurist flick whose name I have appropriated for the title of this blog post, “If you put your mind to it, you can accomplish anything.”

Or so Boeing thought.

So where did it fail? BusinessWeek Online’s Jo Best pinpointed a host of problems in her excellent analysis “Whither Airline Broadband?”

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Still, Best’s article raises more questions than it answers: For example, left unanswered is the question of whether Boeing’s plan to terminate Connexion may delay the arrival of in-flight Internet access from other technology providers. Indications are that it won’t.

For one, a rival service called OnAir, a joint venture of Airbus and Sita, is betting that Connexion failed not just because of high pricing, but because Boeing went backward into the future by offering a data connection (i.e., assuming that laptops would be travelers’ technology of choice), rather than forward by offering voice connectivity. Thus OnAir is guessing that handhelds like Blackberries are what future flyers will carry.

In fact, the story quotes Booz Allen Hamilton as projecting that by 2010, 100 million passengers will be using “mobile telephony” while gliding in the air up there.

The Seattle Times’ Dominic Gates pointed out in his post-mortem that Connexion was also doomed by the high cost of installation, as well as the expense of each jet’s increased fuel consumption due to both the added weight of the Connexion equipment and the aerodynamic drag of its antenna.

In a future beyond just in-flight telephony, airlines are already discovering technology opportunities to broaden their menu of income-generating, in-air services.

These include:
* Live in-flight television and on-demand entertainment
* Text messaging on in-flight entertainment screens
* On-board power to iPods and other music players

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Ironically, Emirates earlier this year became the first commercial airline to enable passengers to chat on their cellphones mid-air — using equipment from AeroMobile.

Just number me among those who will not be dancing in the aisles over the prospect of seatmates talking up a storm. In fact, if in the future you care to relive the cabin calm that characterized air travel of the past, you and I will have to hitch a ride on Doc Brown’s plutonium-powered time machine back to an era that never again will be.

Airline Futurist • Miami • rbuckman@amadeus.com • www.amadeus.com