United just announced that it’s making a massive purchase of 270 new planes. Better yet, those planes will have upgraded cabin technology, like upgraded in-seat displays, faster wifi, and, most notably, support for Bluetooth audio. And while it’s about time United’s planes got some new tech, I’m also wondering if it’s enough.
United in a press release said its 270 new jets will deliver “the best customer experience in the industry” thanks to improvements like larger overhead luggage bins, the “industry’s fastest available in-flight wifi,” access to power outlets or USB charging ports for every seat, and, perhaps most notably, Bluetooth connectivity for in-flight entertainment.
United is also upgrading its in-screen displays with new 13-inch HD screens in first class, or slightly smaller 10-inch HD screens in economy. United says its planes will also get new colored LED lighting, similar to what you see on smaller airlines like JetBlue and in a growing number of luxury cars, to provide a “bright look and feel.”
And aside from its order of 270 new planes (which are a mix of Boeing 737 Max 8s, 737 Max 10s, and Airbus A321neos), United has also pledged to retrofit its existing fleet with similar tech to help provide an upgraded and better connected experience across its entire fleet.
Now don’t get me wrong: All these upgrades sound nice. When you’re trapped in a seat for hours on end, anything to help pass the time is greatly appreciated. But as someone who traveled frequently pre-pandemic and currently lives 20 minutes away from United’s big hub in Newark, I have to question if these incremental upgrades are the right approach to improving travel tech.
The big problem with tech on planes, trains, and even cars for that matter is that the tech industry moves so fast, by the time transportation providers upgrade from USB-A charging ports that put out five watts of power, gadgets with USB-C ports and support for fast charging have already hit the market.
Case in point: United’s new 10- and 13-inch HD screens. Not only will the vast majority of people not have access to the larger displays in first class, it’s unclear if those screens are plain old HD (aka 720p) or full HD (1080p). For the sake of future United passengers, I’m hoping it’s the latter. And I’m assuming we can all forget about 4K.
While United’s new planes are set to begin ferrying passengers this summer, United’s larger 737 Max 10 and A321neo planes aren’t expected to arrive until 2023, with United’s retrofit timeline not scheduled to be 100% complete until the summer of 2025. That’s a lot of time for tech to evolve.
I recently took a flight on United, and realized my Galaxy Z Fold2 was basically the same size as my in-seat display—and whole helluva lot sharper, colorful, and way more responsive. Now I know it’s not reasonable to expect the average person to own a $2,000 foldable phone, but prices will come down a lot over the next few years, and things could be very different in 2025. And that’s before we even consider ubiquitous devices like tablets, traditional big-screen phones, and laptops that offer way better entertainment experiences that you control, instead of relying on an airline to provide something for you. Most people would probably have a better experience if they pretended in-seat displays don’t exist, and instead downloaded their airline’s app onto a phone or tablet in order to watch videos on their personal device.
So maybe the upgraded screens are a wash. Let’s move onto faster wifi, which is important, especially for anyone who ever needs to work on a flight. Claiming to have the industry’s fastest in-flight wifi doesn’t tell us much, as the wifi on almost every flight I’ve ever taken struggles to hit download speeds of more than 15 Mbps. And fast wifi isn’t useful for most people when you still have to pay an additional fee to get access only for the internet and other in-flight entertainment to potentially cut out when you’re traveling over international borders. This happened to me a month ago.
Well, the Bluetooth part has to be good, right? Just imagine the madness that could occur when a plane full of people try to pair their Bluetooth headphones with their in-seat display before takeoff. Sure, syncing Bluetooth devices is much easier than it used to be, but I fear for the mental health of the thousands of flight attendants who may about to become part-time Geek Squad employees.
But what worries me the most is that alongside new tech, United also says its new planes will come with more room for premium seating, which is a tacit plan to encourage more people to pay for upgrades to Economy Plus or first class, essentially widening the gap between the quality of seats on a flight.
Instead, I would love to see more airlines include clips or stands designed to accommodate tablets and phones, or take some of the money they’re spending on new in-seat displays to make wifi free and available to everyone. Put data caps on in-flight wifi if you want, just don’t make me fork over $5-$10 if I want to check my email on a 2-hour trip. And if airlines are going to offer TV shows on demand, give me a full season instead of a couple random unconnected episodes.
Look, it’s not all bad. Making charging ports available for every seat, adding Bluetooth connectivity for the all the Bluetooth earbuds we’re using, and speeding up in-flight wifi (even if you still have to pay for it separately), are positive changes. But at the same time, I’m not sure if this represents transformative tech upgrade that a lot of travelers might be hoping for.