The long-awaited breakthrough in inflight entertainment is upon us. For years, passengers have lamented the lack of Bluetooth connectivity, instead being forced to utilize uncomfortable, airline-issued headphones instead. But the age of wireless is upon us, with two major airlines unveiling solutions that allow passengers to connect to the IFE with their own personal headphones.
United’s single-aisle passenger experience upgrades
United Airlines’ huge order for 270 narrowbody aircraft earlier this week signals a step-change for the US airline. Not only will it engineer fewer regional jets and more mainline aircraft at key airports, but it also promises to knock the passenger experience up a notch.
From larger overhead bins to super-fast inflight WiFi, United is raising the bar on US short and medium-haul flights. It’s promising to refit its entire narrowbody fleet to the same standards by 2025, including adding seatback entertainment screens at every seat.
But the real gamechanger here is the addition of one of the industry’s most requested passenger amenities. That’s right; you can wave goodbye to double pin sockets, uncomfortable airline headsets, and wires getting tangled around your gin and tonic – Bluetooth connectivity is here.
Bluetooth has arrived
Revealed at the airline’s ‘United Next’ event this week, every passenger will be able to enjoy the latest generation of Panasonic Avionics’ IFE system, with 10 inches of screen in economy and 13 inches in first. Equipped with movies, TV shows, music and more, the big upgrade for passengers here comes from the audio connectivity. United Airlines has become the first airline in the US to roll out the option for passengers to use their own Bluetooth headphones onboard.
— Jaspreet ✈️ (@JaspreetTravels) June 29, 2021
This means that whether your preference is a pair of lightweight earbuds or big noise-canceling over-ear headphones, you can continue to enjoy sound your own way when onboard. Given a choice, airline passengers would always prefer to continue using their own equipment over airline-supplied alternatives; indeed, this has been at the top of the frequent flier wish list for many years.
Although United will be first in the US, it was pipped at the post to being first in the world, as Doha-based Qatar Airways launched a similar product just days before on its 787-9. In all cabins, passengers will be able to pair their personal headphones with the Oryx One system for flexible options on inflight entertainment.
For Qatar, this is all part of its ambition to create a touch-free journey for its passengers. Since February, passengers on the A350 have been able to enjoy Zero-Touch technology for IFE control, which simply involves scanning a QR code on their personal device in order to access the control. The Bluetooth connectivity on the Dreamliners is the next step in this process, eliminating the need to use third-party headphones. That’s sure to be attractive for United fliers too.
Why are we waiting?
It seems like, in our on-the-ground lives, we’ve been using Bluetooth technology for audio for the longest time. So why is it taking so long to get this tech into aircraft cabins?
Well, for a start, it’s not as simple as it is on the ground. Connecting to your smartphone usually sees you pick up maybe one or two other Bluetooth signals from nearby devices. On an aircraft with dozens of people in close proximity, you could be presented with a list of 10, 20 or more device names, making it impossible to select the right one.
Even if you’re smart enough to name your headphones something recognizable, there’s a high risk of interference from other Bluetooth users when so many are so close to one another. This is a problem that aviation technology firms have been attempting to solve for years.
Panasonic was one of the first to crack it, with its eX3 IFE solution. At first, it was only rolled out in business class, and only with airline-supplied headsets, something which began as long ago as 2019. But with its NEXT solution, Bluetooth connectivity for all, with their own devices, became a reality.
Safran has also cracked the code to bring Bluetooth to all passengers with its RAVE Ultra platform. As of now, we’re yet to see this being rolled out in practice but is likely coming soon. Lufthansa has selected it for the forthcoming 777-9, as has ANA for a retrofit of its 787-8s.
Just as Apple ditched the headphone jack in 2016, with the release of the iPhone 7, airlines will eventually say goodbye to this old technology too. For now, the options are limited, but with the technology in place, we can expect to see more Bluetooth options for passengers as IFE systems reach their upgrade points.
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