United and DirecTV: 1970s TV You Can PAY For

I fly United a fair bit, I’m up to like 500,000 lifetime miles. I used to fly a lot more when I lived near Dulles. Now it’s mainly Heathrow to Dulles and the odd flight within the US. This weekend I had the first taste of DirectTV on a flight from Orlando to Dulles. It was bad in so many ways, breaking things that have worked well for so long. It also broke new ground in terms of in-your-face advertisements.

1970 Called. They want their TV back

It is like 1970s television. You can change the channel, you can change the volume. That’s it. We all have some kind of DVR, Tivo, or recording thing at home. At home in 2014, we can pause, rewind, and fast forward live TV (if we paused it, we can jump forward to catch up). Why is the latest, greatest in-flight entertainment system that’s launched in 2013 patterned after the way we watched television in 1970? They have on-demand entertainment systems on the international flights. Pick what you like. Stop and choose something else. It works. United has picked up a second in-flight entertainment system that is incompatible and different from the one it already has on some other aircraft. This increases maintenance costs, requires lots of support knowledge for both the staff and support teams, and it requires software development and so on. And it’s inferior to the system they already had. Well done.

You cannot pause

More importantly, if the flight staff get on the public address (PA) system and talk about stuff, the TV shows just keep on going. You miss things. The in-flight entertainment system on international flights pauses when they talk. This one doesn’t. Why does this matter? Because…

You pay for it

That’s right: they want you to pay for the privilege of watching anything other than advertisements on this 1970s-capable TV system. And if they start chatting about connecting flights, fastening your seat belt, the weather in Denver, or whatever, that’s tough. If you can’t hear the movie you paid money for, tough luck. You can change channels and change the volume. That’s it. All the things you could do on a 1970s television. And that’s supposed to be worth paying for.

Did I mention advertisements?

Most web sites, online magazines and newspapers, and most mobile phone and table apps will get rid of advertisements if you pay for it. Not United’s DirectTV. Even though you have paid money for it, you will still see ads in the content. This is the authentic 1970s TV experience: ads that you cannot skip, fast forward, nor pay enough to avoid. In 2014 you can become the customer by paying money. With the DirecTV system, even if you pay for it, you’re still not the customer. You’re just a pair of eyeballs who has paid to have advertising delivered to himself. Clever: get paid to deliver the ads and get me to pay to watch them. How can I get a business like this?

There’s no real ‘off’ switch.

There’s a brightness control. And if you run the brightness down all the way, the screen does, in fact, turn off. But it doesn’t stay off. At 2 or 3 times during the flight, it will turn on and display advertisements for DirectTV and other things. And when those ads are running, you cannot turn the screen off! Clearly I have not paid enough yet to become the customer. The safety videos and whatnot are mildly annoying, but I accept that I have to see them. I even accept that I might see a little promo for their Olympic support or the Gershwin theme song. But mandatory advertisements are seriously not welcome. How much do I have to pay to become the customer—to have the flight experience designed around what I want and not designed around what an advertising partner wants? The ads are also not terribly clever. When it resets at landing time, it turns on for some mandatory ads that say “SWIPE NOW” even though we’re taxiing off the runway headed to the gate.

There’s no music

On the international flights they have music channels. This DirecTV thing has no music. And that’s why I say it has no ‘off’ switch, either. The sound from the TV plays continuously through the headphone jack, even when you’ve turned the brightness all the way down. You can’t really turn it off. Music would be nice.

What This Passenger Wants

So, United, want to know what a PASSENGER wants?

A Phone Dock

Give me a place to dock my phone. Have it charge while it’s docked. Make the screen in the seat back MY screen. Give me an interface to my music and my videos off my phone or my tablet. Give me the choice of some TV, some movies, or some music. Do it on demand, like on the international flights. Let it pause, rewind, fast forward. Take out the ads. Really. That’s not cool at all.

The Screen as Home Screen For Your Flight

Let that screen in the back of the seat be a menu: an interface to the staff. Have it ask me what I want to drink, what I want to eat, and accept my credit card if I pay for something. Then, the staff can just bring me what I’ve asked for, knowing that it’s already paid for, etc. They don’t have to run the whole cart of everything I might possibly want down the aisle. They can just get a tray of 6 or 10 drinks, snacks, etc. and walk it to the people who want it. And you know what? Go ahead and put Skymall in there, too. I won’t shop there, but I’m throwing you a bone. Maybe someone will buy some duty free or some Skymall stuff while they fly.

Power

It’s 2014 and, finally, I see a power outlet at my seat. And you know what it is? It’s the power that we were using 10 years ago. It’s 120V AC for running my laptop. Only you know what people are plugging in? AC converters for their iPads, phones, cameras, and handheld game systems. All those things charge off DC power. If you gave me a couple USB plugs it would be easier to plug in and more useful. Sure, some folks are running laptops, but do a survey on a few flights. Count what people are plugging in. And see if most people are not charging a device that would charge off of USB. And if you gave me a USB plug, you could give me the interface to my screen, as I described above. You don’t have to give me an iPhone-specific, Samsumg-specific, whatever-specific connector. Just give me a USB jack and make me supply the cable. My Chevy Cruze that I rented this weekend does all this. The technology has existed for some time. Keep the AC power outlets, but you don’t need one per seat. You need 4 USBs and 1 or 2 ACs per 3 seats.

And Internet

For God’s sake get the Internet onto that aircraft. No, you don’t get to charge me $5 for it. It’s like water, cool air, and the little reading light. In 2014 it’s just part of the level of service you should deliver. United is not a budget airline. Give me a experience worthy of the price I pay.

I’m a relatively price-insensitive business traveller. If Delta’s got a flight from Heathrow for $925 and United is $1000, I’m going to fly United. That’s called loyalty. Reward my loyalty. Don’t punish me with ads, anachronistic in-flight entertainment, and 20-year-old conventions for in-flight service. Wake up and smell the second decade of the 21st century.

Steal These Ideas. Really.

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United and DirecTV: 1970s TV You Can PAY For
This weekend I had the first taste of DirectTV on a flight from Orlando to Dulles. It was bad in so many ways, breaking things that have worked well for so long. It also broke new ground in terms of in-your-face advertisements.