Does Southwest Airlines’ Live TV Offering Give Them An Edge With Domestic Leisure Travelers?

Southwest announced yesterday that it will begin offering live television free on flights (sponsored by Dish).  At first, I thought it was a ho-hum kind of announcement.  But, I think there’s a bit more to this announcement, especially in light of my recent thoughts on the legacy airlines running out of reasons to compete.

First and foremost, I’m interested to hear how the service works.  Southwest is using Row44 as opposed to Gogo(who has pretty much all the other Wi-Fi offering airlines in the US other than United Airlines).  The big difference between the two is that Gogo offers a land-based system with a bunch of towers on the ground where Row 44 uses satellites and works over the ocean as well as over ground.

As Wi-Fi has become more ubiquitous more people log on during flight.  This has caused some noticeable drops in speed on some flights I’ve been on over the last year or so.  If Southwest is comfortable offering live TV then they are most likely comfortable that it won’t impact connection speeds for other users.  That’s the way satellite Wi-Fi is supposed to work but it’s always good to see further confirmation of it.

I’ll be really interested to see if this service catches on in popularity.  I suspect that this is another reason Southwest will continue to fare well with leisure travelers.  While Southwest isn’t quite the bottom of the barrel fare airline they used to be they still represent a good value on a lot of the routes they fly.

They also offer some bolt-on options to make them function more like an airline for business travelers, like fast trips through security and priority boarding.

They don’t make sense for me as a business traveler for a couple reasons.  First, I want to accrue points on an airline that I can use to travel to exotic locales, preferably in a lie-flat seat with a great glass of champagne.  Southwest has no functional way to do that for me.  Second, Southwest has a very small presence out of IAD, my home airport.

Southwest really seems to be setting itself up well to compete with the legacy carriers for their next round of (un)innovation.  Their marketing sells really well to occasional travelers.  Bags travel free!  Great snacks on board!  The fleet is newly outfitted with Wi-Fi and now live TV.  These are all buzz words that ring well to a family that’s looking to book some tickets for vacation.

No question it’s harder to see the next innovation before it’s invented/introduced.  I can’t say I contemplated Wi-Fi on planes until quite a while after Wi-Fi had been around for a while in coffee houses and the like.  TV onboard isn’t new.  JetBlue popularized it and Continental chose it over Wi-Fi when airlines were trying to pick the next winning technology.  And yet, I think Southwest will grab some headlines by adding this onboard.  I don’t see the other airlines trying to match this and yet if they do all they’ll be doing is catching up.  Seems odd to think of the legacy airlines “catching up” to something as simple as free TV onboard.

Southwest may not be able to compete with first class cabins and flights to Europe but they continue to do a good job taking bigger and bigger crumbs off the plates of the Big soon-to-be 3.


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  1. Satellite-based internet connections have the same theoretical limits as terrestrial ones: too many users consuming too much bandwidth will max it out. And satellite-based options have higher latency, too, which can affect some browsing experiences. Also, the bottleneck is between the plane and the rest of the world; the streaming happening on board isn’t a problem even if everyone is using it. The TV feed into the plane is separate from the internet feed. This won’t really affect that experience at all.

    Where this move does give Southwest an advantage is in that they can have free personal IFE for their passengers, something most other domestic competitors don’t offer.

    1. As you know, “free” is not something that the current airlines offering TV really want to offer. I have no idea how much Dish is paying Southwest for this, nor for how long. But, I can’t imagine there are too many people lined up behind them willing to pay for something like this for an extended period of time. Maybe DirecTV offers to cover a smaller range of channels on the old Continental planes or something. Although, I assume as the old Continental planes get refurbished/retired, United is moving away from that product? You would know better than me.

      My understanding of the current satellite-based services is that they have a broader chunk of spectrum then terrestrial (Gogo) has, at least for the time being with the FCC considering a bigger chunk of spectrum for this purpose.

      I wouldn’t swear by this or consider myself an expert on bandwidth, but each plane in theory only has a limited amount of bandwidth available. Carve that up amongst more and more users and sooner or later it’s bound to slow down.

  2. There was a time I flew legacy carriers. WIth my Southwest points (from flying and cc bonus’), I realize it’s good to have some miles scattered.

    SW allows those readers that don’t have the highest airline status with UA/AA to cancel a ticket or an award ticket without penalty. I’d say this works in their favor.
    Legacy carriers charge a fee to do this.

    1. Dhammer, I agree that no change fee is another great way WN differentiates itself with leisure travelers. Even though they’re not the right fit for me there are plenty of people I recommend them to based on their travel patterns.

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