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, 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.

The Independent travel offers: Discover a world of inspiring destinations

Suggested Topics
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Jamie Dornan stars as Christian Grey in the Fifty Shades of Grey movie
filmFirst look at Jamie Dornan in Fifty Shades of Grey trailor
Lars Ulrich of Metallica performs on the Pyramid Stage at Glastonbury 2014
Shinji Kagawa and Reece James celebrate after the latter scores in Manchester United's 7-0 victory over LA Galaxy
voicesGood for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth, writes Grace Dent
Farah returns to the track with something to prove
Commonwealth games
Life and Style
fashion Designs are part of feminist art project by a British student
Arts and Entertainment
The Tour de France peloton rides over a bridge on the Grinton Moor, Yorkshire, earlier this month
Very tasty: Vladimir Putin dining alone, perhaps sensibly
ebookHow to enjoy the perfect short break in 20 great cities
Arts and Entertainment
Top guns: Cole advised the makers of Second World War film Fury, starring Brad Pitt
filmLt-Col Steven Cole is the man Hollywood calls when it wants to borrow a tank or check a uniform
Life and Style
Listen here: Apple EarPods offer an alternative
techAre custom, 3D printed earbuds the solution?
Snoop Dogg pictured at The Hollywood Reporter Nominees' Night in February, 2013
people... says Snoop Dogg
The University of California study monitored the reaction of 36 dogs
sciencePets' range of emotions revealed
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from Shakespeare in Love at the Noel Coward Theatre
theatreReview: Shakespeare in Love has moments of sheer stage poetry mixed with effervescent fun
Independent Travel Videos
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Amsterdam
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Giverny
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in St John's
Independent Travel Videos
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Travel

    C++ Software Engineer - Hounslow, West London - C++ - to £60K +

    £40000 - £60000 per annum + Pension, Healthcare : Deerfoot IT Resources Limite...

    VB.NET and C# developer (VB.NET,C#,ASP.NET)

    £30000 - £45000 per annum + Bonus+Benefits+Package: Harrington Starr: VB.NET a...

    Visitor Experience volunteer

    Unpaid voluntary role: Old Royal Naval College: To assist the Visitor Experien...

    Telesales Manager. Paddington, London

    £45-£55k OTE £75k : Charter Selection: Major London International Fashion and ...

    Day In a Page

    Screwing your way to the top? Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth

    Screwing your way to the top?

    Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth, says Grace Dent
    Will the young Britons fighting in Syria be allowed to return home and resume their lives?

    Will Britons fighting in Syria be able to resume their lives?

    Tony Blair's Terrorism Act 2006 has made it an offence to take part in military action abroad with a "political, ideological, religious or racial motive"
    Beyoncé poses as Rosie the Riveter, the wartime poster girl who became a feminist pin-up

    Beyoncé poses as Rosie the Riveter

    The wartime poster girl became the ultimate American symbol of female empowerment
    The quest to find the perfect pair of earphones: Are custom, 3D printed earbuds the solution?

    The quest to find the perfect pair of earphones

    Earphones don't fit properly, offer mediocre audio quality and can even be painful. So the quest to design the perfect pair is music to Seth Stevenson's ears
    US Army's shooting star: Lt-Col Steven Cole is the man Hollywood calls when it wants to borrow a tank or check a military uniform

    Meet the US Army's shooting star

    Lt-Col Steven Cole is the man Hollywood calls when it wants to borrow a tank or check a military uniform
    Climate change threatens to make the antarctic fur seal extinct

    Take a good look while you can

    How climate change could wipe out this seal
    Should emergency hospital weddings be made easier for the terminally ill?

    Farewell, my lovely

    Should emergency hospital weddings be made easier?
    Man Booker Prize 2014 longlist: Crowdfunded novel nominated for first time

    Crowdfunded novel nominated for Booker Prize

    Paul Kingsnorth's 'The Wake' is in contention for the prestigious award
    Vladimir Putin employs a full-time food taster to ensure his meals aren't poisoned

    Vladimir Putin employs a full-time food taster

    John Walsh salutes those brave souls who have, throughout history, put their knives on the line
    Tour de France effect brings Hollywood blockbusters to Yorkshire

    Tour de France effect brings Hollywood blockbusters to Yorkshire

    A $25m thriller starring Sam Worthington to be made in God's Own Country
    Will The Minerva Project - the first 'elite' American university to be launched in a century - change the face of higher learning?

    Will The Minerva Project change the face of higher learning?

    The university has no lecture halls, no debating societies, no sports teams and no fraternities. Instead, the 33 students who have made the cut at Minerva, will travel the world and change the face of higher learning
    The 10 best pedicure products

    Feet treat: 10 best pedicure products

    Bags packed and all prepped for holidays, but feet in a state? Get them flip-flop-ready with our pick of the items for a DIY treatment
    Commonwealth Games 2014: Great Scots! Planes and pipers welcome in Glasgow's Games

    Commonwealth Games 2014

    Great Scots! Planes and pipers welcome in Glasgow's Games
    Jack Pitt-Brooke: Manchester City and Patrick Vieira make the right stand on racism

    Jack Pitt-Brooke

    Manchester City and Patrick Vieira make the right stand on racism
    How Terry Newton tragedy made iron men seek help to tackle their psychological demons

    How Newton tragedy made iron men seek help to tackle their psychological demons

    Over a hundred rugby league players have contacted clinic to deal with mental challenges of game