Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Flying the Techie Skies

I don't travel as much as I used to, but enough to be reminded of what it was like when I traveled a whole lot.

We would all agree that traveling includes far more technical bits to it.

But for this column, I'm going to focus on the in-flight technologies that we have come to expect.

Let's start with entertainment. Yes, I remember when airplanes meant that you could read a book or a bunch of magazines with no distractions other than lots of people around you.

Then a large projection screen was put in the front of each section where people could kind of, sort of see it. And you had to pay a few dollars for the headsets that were more like stethoscopes than headsets.

The great innovation was when every seat back started to have a screen in it. The first iterations played the same entertainment for everyone at the same time. The next advancement was to let people choose among different channels, but with everyone on the same schedule, meaning that a particular movie started for everyone at the same time.

Beyond that, we now have numerous movies that everyone can start and stop whenever he or she wants to. We even have live TV via satellite that lets people watch, for example, current sporting events or TV shows.

Most of these technologies have been around for at least 10 years.

What surprises me is how inconsistent the airlines are in providing them.

Over the weekend, I took a trip to California, where I was on four different flights on United. Each flight had a different in-flight entertainment system. This included the big screen in front of the cabin, smaller screens every few rows that drop down from above and screens in the seat back in front of me.

Additionally, the payment model was different for each flight.

One flight gave free headsets and didn't charge for the shared movie on the big screen; another flight offered free headsets, but offered free DirecTV service; and another flight offered free headsets, but required you to pay for the DirecTV service — all on the same airline and all within a couple of days of each other.

Of course, United was advertising its new Boeing 787 Dreamliner, which offers even better in-flight entertainment, electrical outlets at each seat and Wi-Fi. That does sound like a dream.

But when I asked one of the flight attendants about the discrepancies in in-flight offerings, and when we pay for something and when we don't, the response was a predictable: "Nothing is free anymore."


Mark Mathias, a 30-plus year veteran of information technology and a resident of Westport, Connecticut, was named by Computerworld magazine to their inaugural list of “Premier 100 IT Leaders.” This column was originally published in the Westport News on Wednesday 17 October 2012.

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