I got to try out the new in-flight entertainment system from United Airlines on this morning’s flight from Cleveland to San Francisco. This Wi-Fi-based system allows streaming of movies and TV shows to laptops and apple iPad and iPhone devices and is much more satisfying than the old ceiling- or seat-mounted systems.
The system is accessed along with standard in-flight Wi-Fi by connecting to the “United_Wi-Fi” SSID on your device. It’s a captive portal system, so you must use a web browser to log on and initiate the service. You may need to reload or try a random web site to get it to load, but it worked flawlessly on my iPad.
Once you are connected to Wi-Fi, the United web portal offers the option of Internet, Flight Information, or (now) Entertainment. Choose the latter and you’ll be presented with a list of movies and TV shows. The library was fairly strong, with lots of Disney and Marvel movies and some foreign language content.
Some of the shows are wide open and playable in the browser (even on Android) but most are locked, with a key icon indicating that they are only playable in the United app or with a browser plugin. This last bit is very interesting, since pre-launch rumors suggested the system would only be usable on iOS.
It’s fairly clever for United to have integrated the video player with their iOS app rather than having a special download for it. And the playback worked fine on my ipad, though it’s quite a rudimentary app. For example, there is no screen rotation so video only plays in “standing” iPad position with the home button to the left. Maybe this will be fixed eventually.
Overall, this system is a huge upgrade. Since most people these days travel with a smartphone, tablet, or laptop, it makes sense to use these screens instead of installing one at every seat. It’s a bit confusing to have to access the media list through a browser and watch in an app, especially since the app lacks any indication of this functionality. But it worked seamlessly.
I imagine systems like these will be huge money savers for airlines, since they decrease the weight of onboard video systems. But I wonder how well the Wi-Fi system will handle the load once a fair number of passengers begins using the system. It was flawless for me, but I was probably the only one who noticed that it was available!
One more note: I’ve also beta tested United’s hourly Wi-Fi system recently and was much less impressed. It was extremely clunky and ended up overcharging me repeatedly. The entertainment system is much better!