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Could Flying Without Wires be the Future? United and Apple Think So.

Could Flying Without Wires be the Future? United and Apple Think So.

United Airlines is gearing up to introduce Bluetooth connectivity on the majority of its aircraft, while Apple is making a compelling case for its travel-friendly wireless AirPods Pro. Envision a world where you no longer need to contend with tangled headphone wires when settling into your airplane seat, endure subpar in-flight entertainment earbuds, or remove your wireless headphones to hear updates from the flight attendants. Is this too good to be true? United Airlines and Apple think not.

United recently revealed ambitious plans to equip hundreds of its airplanes with Bluetooth technology, making it the first major U.S. airline to completely revamp its fleet with wireless technology. United believes that this technology will be further complemented by Apple's latest wireless AirPods.

Jason Birnbaum, United's chief information officer, expressed his enthusiasm during a press event at San Francisco International Airport, saying, "When we saw the new features of Apple's AirPods Pro... we really felt like this showcased how tech could aid you on your journey." Representatives from both United and Apple outlined the benefits of using United and Apple technology together.

United has already installed Bluetooth-enabled seatback screens on over 100 aircraft, including all Boeing 737 MAX 8 and most Boeing 737 MAX 9 planes. By 2032, United plans to make Bluetooth technology available on more than 800 aircraft. Every seat on a plane equipped with Bluetooth-connected seatback screens will have access to this technology. Passengers will receive a pre-departure email informing them about the availability of Bluetooth, similar to how they are notified about in-flight Wi-Fi.

It's important to note that United's new Bluetooth technology is compatible with any wireless headphones, not just Apple products. However, Apple highlighted some unique features of its AirPods Pro that can enhance the in-flight audio experience. These features include "conversation awareness," which lowers the volume and noise cancellation when the user starts speaking, and "adaptive audio," which adjusts audio and noise cancellation based on the surroundings. The AirPods Pro's "transparency mode" allows users to hear their surroundings, while "active noise cancellation" drowns out external noises, such as the airplane engine.

"People want to stay connected while they're in the air, but there's also a lot of interactions between our crew and customers," noted Birnbaum.

At the press event, Apple representatives demonstrated how to pair a Bluetooth device, in this case, AirPods Pro, with United's retrofitted planes:

  1. Turn on the seatback screen and select the Bluetooth icon on the screen's toolbar.
  2. Ensure that your wireless headphones are disconnected from other devices and activate Bluetooth on the headphones.
  3. When the headphones are in pairing mode, select the device from the Bluetooth drop-down menu.

While it may take a bit of practice to get used to the process, it becomes more seamless over time. If Bluetooth technology is not available on a particular United flight, or on other carriers lacking this feature, passengers can use Bluetooth plug-in devices like the AirFly adapter by Twelve South (priced at $55) to connect their wireless devices. However, it's wise to carry a wired backup option for instances when Bluetooth connectivity may not be available.

United currently stands as the only major U.S. carrier to offer Bluetooth connectivity via seatback screens on its entire fleet. Delta Air Lines provides Bluetooth pairing in the first-class cabins of its newest Airbus A321neo planes. Several international airlines are also embracing this technology, including Air France, Etihad, and Qatar Airways.

United's Bluetooth upgrades are part of a broader investment in its fleet, encompassing tech-driven enhancements for first-class passengers, such as wireless charging and high-definition screens with a companion remote. Additionally, the United Polaris international business-class cabin will see new soft amenities to enhance sleep quality.

Recently, United announced an order for 110 additional airplanes, set for delivery starting in 2028. These aircraft, including 50 Boeing 787-9s and 60 Airbus A321neos, will all come equipped with seatback screens featuring Bluetooth connectivity and "fast Wi-Fi." United also promises increased overhead bin space, a feature first revealed before the pandemic.

United's goal is to have 75 percent of its fleet upgraded with these enhancements by 2030, marking them as "new-generation" aircraft.