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AirplaneWestJet Connect promises to change your in flight entertainment experience

By Jim Bray
January 28, 2016

Remember the live satellite TV broadcasts WestJet innovated in Canada years back when they were carving out their niche as an upstart discount airline taking on the established giant that was Air Canada? Well they're about to follow free checked baggage into the history books thanks to a new scheme the Calgary-based airline is rolling out.

Called WestJet Connect, the system will see those little seat-back TV's eliminated, eventually, in favour of tablet computers – either your own or one they'll be more than happy to rent you. It's similar to systems creeping their way onto other airlines' menus – I flew United last fall and they had rolled out such a thing – and while it can offer you advantages over the seat-back TV's WestJet has offered for years, it also has limitations.

And unlike the TV channels of the airline's status quo, seatback TV service, it won't be "included in the price." It is right now, on the flights that offer it, but that's because passengers are basically beta testing the service on the airline's behalf - at least that was my experience last November, the last time I was a customer of the one-time discount airline.

I applauded WestJet's TV service when they introduced it, but haven't really been interested in it since. The service gives passengers a very limited selection of Bell TV's satellite channels - anything you like, as long as it's sports, business news, the "mainstream media channels" of CTV, CBC and Global, and a few specialty channels aimed at kids, cooks, and the like. The carrier used to offer Fox News, but it disappeared many years ago, probably (I'm speculating) after someone whined about right wing American media despite the fact that Fox News is about as right wing as CTV. Or maybe CBC didn't like the competition, since they have no ability or desire to compete in a free market. But I digress…

Never once have I been tempted to sample WestJet's (or any other airline's) pay per view movies – why would I want to pay to watch an edited movie (that's interrupted by announcements all the time) on a tiny and relatively crummy little screen? So I've either brought my laptop computer aboard or, in more recent years, my iPad, the latter of which is actually the perfect tool for such a job. That relegated WestJet's TV's to merely showing me the Live Map (which gives you your current location, altitude, etc.), something for which the dinky little low-res screens are perfectly adequate.

So the idea of WestJet Connect struck me as interesting. And while my initial experience with the service was decidedly iffy, it does have potential. I liked that there was more selection when it comes to movies and TV shows – canned, as they are on Air Canada's system, rather than live broadcasts. There's also a Live TV option, but in the current beta situation it's extremely forgettable.

I had some questions about WestJet Connect so I got in touch with the airline's PR folks, eventually interacting with spokesman (yes, he is a man) Robert Palmer, who I've known for probably 15 years or so through other career incarnations for both of us. My queries came with attitude – I used to be a big fan of the airline, but now have written it off as just another carrier – but he rather professionally managed to ignore it in his responses, which probably took more effort than I'd have given it!

Anyway, my first question was whether the current service is merely the beta test I figured it is and whether or not thing will change. "WestJet Connect will continue to evolve," he said in his email response to me. "New content and features will be added over time (which we won't share yet) in response to guest feedback and the system's own natural evolution." Sure, it's a non-answer, but at least it indicates the system isn't written in stone. Possibly.

As for when they're going to start charging for the service, he said it's still under discussion and there has been no decision made yet. So start saving up the pennies you have left over after you've paid your luggage fee - and in the meantime, enjoy it for free if you bring your own portable device.

The service had no live map back in November, which I found annoying since the 737 on which I experienced the service had no seat-back TV's, either. I'd like to see TV's left on the seatback, so you can see the map (or "free" TV) regardless of what's on your personal device, but I can't imagine that happening. Still, the new Live Map could be pretty cool: I was told by one associate that one of the American airlines offers a virtual view of the ground below the plane, as if you were flying in a glass-bottomed plane. That would be really something - vertigo fears notwithstanding - but even a straightforward map like they used to offer (which, despite the damn ads peppered through it, is better than Air Canada's) would be just fine to this passenger, thank you very much.

"There is a new live map in development," Palmer told me. "The original one was obviously far from proportionate so we're looking for something better this time." I'm not sure what he meant by "proportionate," but I'm very curious to see what they come up with.

WestJet Connect's video quality is okay, though of course some of this will depend upon which device you're using. I used an iPad Air, which offers fine video (not including the "garbage in, garbage out" issue of what the source signal is like) and noticed that the canned videos I tried (movie and TV show excerpts) would be mostly okay for airplane use. There was quite a bit of video noise on the stuff I auditioned, but I'm not sure the non-videophile passenger will notice it much.

WestJet also puts their logo over the programming, a common tactic of TV channels these days but one I still find annoying. When I asked Palmer why WestJet was doing this, which seems kind of silly considering people are unlikely to forget whose plane they're on, he said he's never seen such a logo, even on a recent flight he took that included the Connect service. I guess I was hallucinating.

And as much as I'd like to see it, I don't expect to find full 1080p, let alone 4K UHD, offered – though it's a premium service that could be worth paying for down the road, depending how it's done. Palmer didn't know what the system's native resolution is but pointed out quite correctly that they have to ensure that it works on a wide variety of devices, so have to pursue a kind of lowest common denominator when it comes to picture and sound.

Using WestJet Connect should be no big deal for folks who have their tablet or laptop computer with them, and their Wi-Fi turned on. But what if you don't have such a thing? According to Palmer, WestJet will be more than happy to rent you a tablet, at least for now. "The tablet is an interim solution to bridge the gap between the point in time we stopped taking aircraft with seatback TV screens and the time when all of our jets will have WestJet Connect installed (end of this year)", he said, noting that "once you rent the tablet, all content is free." This means you'll only pay for the tablet or the Connect service, not both.

Another disadvantage to renting a tablet from the carrier is that they'll pick it up on the approach, meaning you won't be able to continue watching as long as you would if you had your own device. And regardless of whether it's your tablet or a rental, you'll be interrupted by all those annoying announcements from the crew, most of which are unnecessary (who doesn't know how to do up a seat belt?) and take twice as long to impart as they should because they have to be made in both official languages. I know, it's the law - but it's a stupid law.

As mentioned, WestJet's old service offered pay per view movies on top of the "free" (read "included in the price") TV channels and Palmer said the pay aspect is still under discussion when it comes to WestJet Connect. "Whether there is a combination of paid and free content remains to be seen," he said.

I also whined to Palmer about the lack of compelling TV channels, asking him if WestJet Connect will offer more of them eventually – especially since right now there are only three channels available and they were so compelling I forget what they were. "The three live TV channels are the ones that came with the system," Palmer noted. "We are negotiating with other service providers to identify and source Canadian live TV channels (business, news and sports)."  

I hope they don't limit TV content to Canadian channels. This may be out of WestJet's hands, thanks to the dinosaur that is the CRTC, but that doesn't make it right - and I'm sure the Canadian broadcasters would prefer a captive audience for their wares rather than being forced to actually compete for viewers (otherwise we wouldn't have Canadian channels overriding the signals of American ones on cable and satellite feeds), so they may have something to say about it.

I also hope WestJet doesn't start charging "guests" for the service until they work out the wrinkles. Well, I hope they don't start charging anyway, offering it instead as a way to differentiate themselves from the competition (like they used to), but I also hope to find a pot of gold at the end of a rainbow.

The WestJet Connect system is obviously in its early days and it will be interesting to see what happens going forward. From Palmer's comment that they're now buying their aircraft without the set-back TV's, it appears that WestJet is committed to the concept and passengers – er, guests – will undoubtedly have to pony up the price eventually if they want to have any kind of in-flight entertainment beyond playing "spot the looney" among the other passengers.

This is a further indication that the once-budget airline has come up with another way to extract cash from its customers. That's bad enough – I'm a free market kind of guy but I also believe in offering value, and I remember when WestJet believed that, too – but it's also sure to turn off some passengers who aren't computer literate. These folks will no longer be able to access TV content by merely scrolling up and down the channel list via buttons on the arm rest. They may be in the minority, but so are people who can't figure out how to do up a seat belt.

Fortunately, it's undoubtedly true that most of these computer-unfriendly people are elderly, so the problem will take care of itself as they die off.

Copyright 2016 Jim Bray

Jim Bray's columns are available through the TechnoFile Syndicate.

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