Hold My Calls: Southwest Gate-to-Gate Connectivity

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Southwest Airlines recently sent me notification that it is the only airline to offer gate-to-gate connectivity on the majority of its fleet.  The service is coupled with its entertainment system with DISH TV and on-demand programming.

Our satellite-based WiFi allows you to enjoy uninterrupted access to free live and on-demand TV compliments of DISH® or for $8 a day per device, you can stay connected onboard all day, even during stops and connections.

I must say it is surprisingly civil to be able to play music or read a Kindle during take-offs and landings. But the new rules still require cell phones to be in “airplane” mode. This feature on most cell phones turns off all of the devices’ radios.

First, nice save. I always thought it ironic that mobile phones had an “airplane” mode when in fact the airlines refused to accept it. Because “airplane” mode was designed before the airlines accepted it, the feature doesn’t actually work the way it should. At least on my Android phone “Airplane” mode is the only way to turn off cellular wireless. The other radios (GPS, Bluetooth, and Wi-Fi) are easily switched on/off through settings or widgets. Airplane mode turns off all the radios, so after activating airplane mode, one would need to re-enable Wi-Fi and/or personal Bluetooth headphones.  Once again, historical nonsensical evolution create an non-intuitive communications process.

Southwest provides DISH TV, but does not provide televisions – it’s a BYOT airline. So if you want to watch any of the 13 live channels or other video options you will need a video capable Wi-Fi device. The Internet is an add-on option for $8, and allows access to many sites and applications EXCEPT voice. The Southwest website says: “We limit access to certain high bandwidth applications and websites, including Netflix, HBO Go and VoIP.” So no cellular voice and no Wi-Fi voice, but Facebook, IM and Twitter are fine.

This creates another bit of surprising evolution – we can use our smartphones for just about anything but voice. A decade or two ago, the airlines installed seat-back phones to enable voice-only communications, now it’s anything but. Gate-to-gate connectivity, but don’t even think about making a call. Even worse, the gate-to-gate connectivity is celebrated as a breakthrough – no one seems bothered that voice is just about the only thing that remains illegal and unavailable. I find it odd – and sad.

Not to mention, the fear of cellular is still unreasonable. I always put my phone into “airplane” mode because it preserves life – battery life. Cell phones are very easy to leave-on, and I’m sure it happens all the time. If there was really any safety concern the airlines would have installed cellular detectors before installing on-board Wi-Fi. It would be very easy for an airline to detect if anyone has left on their cell phone. It just doesn’t seem like much of a concern.

Dave Michels