Innovation: Continental's Wireless Plan on the Wing

By Debra D'Agostino  |  Posted 07-14-2006

Bryson Monteleone is fed up with the poor customer service that has become the norm on U.S. airlines, not just on the ground, but in the air as well. "The service you get on any Asian carrier, in any class, is amazing," says the managing director at Morten, Beyer & Agnew, a consulting company for the airline industry. "Why do U.S. passengers suffer so much?" The reason, Monteleone says, is because U.S. airlines are focused on the wrong things, like removing pillows to reduce onboard weight.

But there is a way to improve customer satisfaction on the plane and solve the weight issue, says Mike Natale, CTO at Continental Airlines Inc. The key? Wireless. "By removing wires from the cabin monitors and seats, you can actually lighten the weight of the airplane significantly," Natale says. In fact, of the 34 new planes Continental plans to take possession of in the next two years, ten 787s will be equipped with wireless entertainment systems from Panasonic.

What does that mean for passengers? Well, where there's wireless, there's Internet access. And where there's Internet access, there's a host of possibilities. "My ideal flying experience isn't just to have Internet access on every flight," says Natale. "I'd like entertainment to be something you can purchase and take with you, like music or a movie you could download to your laptop." Natale won't disclose specifics, but he says Continental is in talks to offer such services in the near future.

Of course, Continental isn't the only carrier getting in on the wireless game—nor is it the first. In fact, many overseas carriers—including Deutsche Lufthansa AG, Singapore Airlines and Japan Airlines—already offer in-flight Web access. But in the U.S., the Federal Aviation Administration is still studying the effect portable devices have on an airplane's navigation system (a report from RCTA Inc., a nonprofit aviation consortium, is due by the end of the year), and it requires a host of special permits to allow wireless devices onboard commercial aircraft. Then there's the heated debate about exactly what kinds of services will be allowed onboard. Internet access is one thing, but nobody wants to spend five hours sitting next to a chatty teenager gabbing on her cell phone.

Still, Natale is optimistic that wireless services will start rolling out in about 18 months. "This is a very expensive initiative to pull off, and money isn't exactly plentiful in the airline industry right now," he says. "But this is definitely the vision we have."