Southwest Airlines has decided to be “completely transparent about system performance” of its Row 44 inflight Internet system, admitting that “in several instances, Wi-Fi has not delivered for our customers – leaving both them and our employees frustrated”.
In the internal message to employees, obtained by the APEX editor’s blog, Southwest manager of product development Angela Vargo says that in the middle of last year, one of the components – the High Powered Transceiver (the HPT) – started failing.
“As a result, we had a good percentage of our Wi-Fi fleet inoperable while Row 44 worked to find a fix. That ‘fix’ ended up being an entirely new supplier and part that had to be certified and manufactured. The setback was frustrating but not surprising. That said, if you’ve ever been an early adopter of technology, you know that first generation hiccups are common and are typically resolved within a relatively short period of time.”
With specific regard to system reliability, Vargo says: “Reliability is one of our key metrics of Wi-Fi health. When a Wi-Fi system on an installed aircraft is inoperable, it has a negative impact on the reliability percentage. During the HPT issue, our reliability obviously dipped. As parts were replaced and the system was reactivated on those planes, our reliability rebounded. Although reliability shifts daily, we have been at or above 93 percent for more than two months now, and we are continuing to see improvements as Maintenance works with Row 44 to manage the supply chain.”
Speed is also being addressed, says Vargo. “Row 44 is a satellite-based service, we have the ability to widen the pipe as usage and demand for high bandwidth activities increases. Row 44 is currently conducting network improvements that include expansions to allow for increased flow when a Wi-Fi customer is sending information off of an aircraft, such as uploading a video, and when requesting data, such as a web site. In addition, Row 44 has several methods to manage traffic real time within the pipeline. This is all conducted behind the scenes in an effort to improve the experience for the majority of Wi-Fi users.”
Does carrying the Row 44 Ku-band antenna system atop its fuselages impact fuel burn? Southwest chief engineer of flight operations Brian Gleason says: “The short answer is that the effect of the winglets on our fuel burn is about ten times greater than the effect of the Wi-Fi radome. We actually track the fuel mileage performance of every one of our aircraft, and anytime we make modifications to our aircraft or processes that will have a direct impact on fuel burn, we look at the data both before and after to measure the true impact.
“We can actually differentiate between engine performance and aircraft (or drag) performance variations. In the case of the winglets, we took data before and after the modification and found that the winglets indeed reduced the aircraft drag and improved our fuel mileage on the order of 3.5 percent. And we did this on several aircraft just to be sure. When it came time to install the radome for the Row 44 system, we went through the same analysis on several aircraft and found that on average the combined impact of the installed equipment weight plus the drag of the radome results in approximately a 1/3 percent fuel burn penalty. So even though it looks big, the actual impact is pretty small.”
Despite these challenges, Vargo says Row 44 has been “a great partner to Southwest – from initial certification to providing 24/7 support and management of the product. As well, our maintenance department has taken a major role in streamlining, diagnosing and optimizing the Wi-Fi system alongside Row 44.”
Given that the carrier was still working through the initial phases of the technology, it “treaded carefully” with regard to marketing the service. Nonetheless, it is seeing “good customer adoption rates, allowing us to get a glimpse of the positive impact this product will have on the inflight customer experience”, says Vargo.
“Due to the fact that reliability has improved and we have a substantial percentage of our fleet outfitted with Wi-Fi, you’ll soon start to see more proactive communication. In order to increase Customer awareness and, subsequently, take rates, we have to put the power of marketing and communication behind it,” she adds.
Earlier this week, Ed Shapiro of PAR Capital – an investor in Row 44 – revealed that Row 44’s inflight Internet system has been fitted almost 250 Southwest aircraft and that new installations occurring at a rate of approximately 20 per month.
“All of the 700s are expected to be equipped by early next year. Additionally, as the AirTran -700s transfer into the Southwest fleet, Gogo is being replaced by Row 44. Finally, all 737-800s [that] SWA is receiving (at a rate of three to four per month) are being equipped with Row 44 before entering service. The net result of this is that we expect to have approximately 400 Southwest planes installed by year-end and approximately 450 by the end of 2013,” he revealed.