Come wi-fi with me: Airlines are offering increasingly high-tech services to tempt us on board

 

As you pull down your tray table, wince at paying £5 for a glass of lukewarm Chablis and settle in for a cramped and uncomfortable flight to sunnier climes this summer, take a deep breath and console yourself that there's hope on the artificial horizon.

From in-flight wireless internet and mobile check-ins to refreshed first-class lounges and smart new planes, the major airlines are spending some serious cash to keep us happy in the air. British Airways is one of the biggest spenders with more than £5bn of investment over the next five years on new aircraft, including the massive Airbus A380 and the fuel-efficient Boeing 787 Dreamliner, while Virgin Atlantic is spending £100m on refurbishing its already luxurious Upper Class cabins.

With fuel prices rising and European airlines set to record a £375m loss this year, according to the latest figures from the International Air Transport Association, it might seem an odd time for the major carriers to spend huge sums on luxuries such as passenger comfort and consumer technology.

"The European and American airlines are spending to catch up with the big three Middle Eastern carriers," says Henry Harteveldt, co-founder of Atmosphere Research Group, an airline research company. "Emirates, Etihad and Qatar Airways have grown rapidly and out-spent their competitors on passenger comfort, new planes and technology as well as price.

"Why then, if you can get a really good experience and save some money by flying via Doha or Dubai, would you stick with a tired European airline? This is exactly the question British Airways, Virgin Atlantic and the other major European carriers are trying to answer."

To infinity and beyond

Apps at the airport

At ground level the first signs of investment won't be immediately obvious as you arrive at the airport. "Spending on new economy lounges has been modest," Henry Harteveldt says. "Instead, the big money has been spent going mobile. European airlines and airports were always ahead with online check-in and now they are leading the way with mobile check-in and paperless boarding." Apps such as FlightStats and GateGuru already guide passengers through the airport.

But new check-in apps from British Airways, Virgin Atlantic, EasyJet, BMI and others mean that up to 6 per cent of passengers check in and board via their smartphones without a paper boarding pass in sight. The Dutch airline KLM has taken the technology even further with its Meet and Seat app, which will soon let you choose whom you sit next to based on Facebook and LinkedIn profiles of your fellow passengers. Meanwhile, in Australia, a system built around radio-frequency ID cards allows regular Qantas passengers to enjoy a totally paperless check-in without a smartphone. The nerd birds

Onboard, the technical changes are more obvious and American carriers are leading the online flight formation as the rise of the so-called "nerd bird" flights – cross-country commuter flights between tech hubs such as San Francisco and Boston – has seen airlines cash in with nearly 2,000 wi-fi-equipped aircraft. The wi-fi available at 26,000ft uses either a hotspot linked to the ground by a network of antennas or a faster, satellite-based system. A recent report from the research firm In-Start shows nearly 8 per cent of all US passengers use wireless internet in the air.

All this data is fuelling a new wave of high-altitude tablet surfing according to a report from Professor Joseph Schwieterman of the DePaul University in Chicago. "When it comes to airline travel, the tablet is king for tech-savvy travellers with nearly 10 per cent of US fliers turning to their tablet in the air," says Schwieterman, who travelled on hundreds of US flights for his research. "Passenger planes are cramped spaces and just like crowded mice in the laboratory we've seen passenger behaviour change as they become more confined. They are more likely to turn off their laptop at the departure gate and turn to their iPad."

Up front, iPads are increasingly replacing the reams of safety paperwork that pilots and cabin crew must carry on each flight. Outside the US, most major airlines are still playing catch-up or only offering wi-fi on certain routes. "Technology can be offered as a perk, for example providing passengers in Business with free tablets  - airBaltic does this, while BA last year offered passengers use of an iPad on its somewhat outdated Boeing 777-200s - during the flight or offering them access to inflight wi-fi for free. SAS is planning to offer this," Raymond Kollau, of Airlinetrends.com, says. Virgin Atlantic's new in-flight entertainment system is set to offer wi-fi capability, Emirates' system already does and British Airways is looking at connectivity for its fleet, so it won't be long before you are tweeting the flight attendant for another G&T instead of pressing the overhead call button.

I'm on the plane!

Thankfully, one area where technical progress seems to have stalled is that of in-flight mobile-phone calls. Ryanair became the first European airline to allow passengers to use mobiles in-flight in 2009 and charged its customers £3 a minute for the privilege of annoying their fellow passengers. The service used a complicated satellite system and expensive receiver equipment rather than the traditional mobile network and the Civil Aviation Authority, which oversees aircraft safety, says few airlines have since fitted the correct equipment to make in-flight calls legal. And in news that will bring cheer to many frequent fliers' hearts, it has no plans to change the current rules "any time soon". So enjoy the peace and quiet.

Service with a smile

It is no secret that airlines make most of the their revenue from first- and business-class passengers. Research by Atmosphere Research Group shows they only make up 10 to 12 per cent of seating capacity on most long-haul flights, but generate about 30 per cent of profits. It's no surprise then that the lion's share of investment will go on cooler champagne and even more legroom for the lucky few.

Last September, Virgin Atlantic opened a Grey Goose Loft, a bar on in its Heathrow Clubhouse that serves cocktails made from, you guessed it, Grey Goose Vodka. Cathy Pacific has refurbished lounges in Frankfurt, San Francisco and Hong Kong, while Lufthansa and Qantas have new lounges due later this year – think state-of-art coffee machines, fresh flowers and complimentary smoked salmon with champagne. Finnair is even testing a headset that will send light into the brain via the ear canal to reduce jet lag. Scientists are sceptical and it is not yet peer-reviewed, but the airline hopes it will prove popular.

Please keep your seats in an upright position

In economy, the space picture is less rosy. "Unless you're willing to pay for it, the era of generous leg room is gone," Harteveldt says.

Lufthansa recently saved space with a new fleet of thin, lighter seats but the additional room has been used for an extra row of seating. "By providing more technology, they can distract us, attract new tech-savvy customers and make our journeys an extension of our days, not a luxury travel event," Harteveldt says.

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