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Advances and Innovations Fueling the Inflight Passenger Experience

The future airline travel experience won’t be one of seatback monitors and pre-loaded inflight movies. Rather, the passenger experience at 35,000 feet will become the center of a digital ecosystem where they can stream TV and film, play games, text and chat, email documents while taking a virtual video meeting, and book a hotel room and dinner reservation while en route.

Tomorrow’s passenger experience, which airlines are actively planning today, will move from passive to interactive to creative—toward what planners are calling the “personalized experience.” Connectivity technologies will be the enabler for easier, streamlined, more enjoyable, and productive air travel.

Proactive personalization of the inflight experience will mimic what business people, families, and millennials already take for granted in 2017 in their offices and homes and not time warp them back to the early 2000s the moment they walk down the jetway.

What Passengers Expect Today

Last year saw a 23 percent increase in mobile connections, and 112 percent increase in global connectivity, according to statistics released at the Global Connected Aircraft Summit in Arlington, VA, earlier this year. The growth of connectivity around the world bears out the conventional wisdom that the flying public expects an inflight experience comparable to terrestrial connectivity.

Air-travel-specific data shows that 83 percent of passengers prefer to choose an airline that offers in-flight WiFi, and that 57 percent of people aged 20-49 are willing to spend money on connectivity so they can browse, shop, and work on their own devices.

“That retail model environment presents a powerful opportunity for airlines in areas such as advertising/ad-based video on demand, known as AVOD, where the business model is free content interspersed with advertisements, à la YouTube and Spotify,” said Sila Managing Director Kelly Spivey.

Studies show passengers expect a high degree of connectivity for little cost; as a result, carriers prefer the AVOD model because they can earn revenue without charging passengers for connectivity. Capabilities like AVOD provide the business case to justify the cost of WiFi upgrades to aircraft, while also driving benefits in customer satisfaction, goodwill, and brand loyalty, which leads to airline product differentiation.

Terrestrial internet penetration, broadly defined as the percentage of a country’s population that uses the internet, drives competitive pressure by airline operators to increase passenger connectivity, which helps explain differences in aircraft connectivity by geographical region. North American operators have been at the forefront of increasing passenger connectivity. For example, Southwest Airlines reported at the summit that 85 percent of its fleet is presently WiFi enabled, with a 100 percent goal planned for the end of 2017.

Internationally, expectations for connectivity have steadily increased with greater internet penetration. Many airlines, such as Chile-based LATAM Airlines (whose fleet was not WiFi-enabled at the time of summit), are actively pursuing avenues for future connectivity. In Europe, some smaller operators such as Iceland Air have successfully enabled WiFi on their entire fleet, whereas larger operators are on a longer path toward upgrading their fleets. Air France, for example, says all its mid-haul and long-haul fleets will have WiFi by 2020 (though it’s just starting the process).

Connectivity for the Passenger Experience

Realization of the personalized passenger experience means that airlines will likely need to partner with content providers. Some already have. Southwest Airlines, for example, presently partners with Hulu. Aeroméxico is a Netflix partner. Being a paid subscriber to those services means having free entertainment for the duration of your flight.

Airline executives who discussed the topic at the summit said that providing their passengers with partner content puts them in control of the viewing experience—opening them up to new and unexpected discoveries, such as realizing that a movie they’ve wanted to watch for six months just became available for streaming. That alone could be enough to drive brand loyalty.

Airlines had one important caveat to partnerships with content providers: brands wishing to protect their own hard-fought reputations should be choosy and only partner with others that have the same brand values.

Streaming content like that provided by Netflix necessitates a large bandwidth pipe to the aircraft that satisfies the needs of potentially 100+ passengers streaming simultaneously. Already, though, available bandwidth for cockpit and cabin connectivity is reaching a positive inflection point with numerous high-bandwidth satellites coming online from providers like Intelsat, Inmarsat, SES, and ViaSat. Lower-cost launch options from companies like Elon Musk’s SpaceX and Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin will greatly reduce the barriers to entry for satellite operators, leading to massive increases in data capacity, enabling data usage by passengers and providing a more robust inflight experience.

ViaSat, a California-based provider of satellite broadband that presented at the summit, said its satellite network has been built to compete with terrestrial broadband so that airlines can theoretically deliver the same performance while inflight.

The aerospace industry is also making great strides in air-to-ground broadband connectivity. North Carolina-based SmartSky Networks said it had begun initial deployment of what it says is the nation’s first airborne 4G LTE-based air-to-ground (ATG) network. Using 60 MHz of spectrum and patented beamforming technology, SmartSky says it will provide more than 10 times the typical speed and capacity of the current industry standard ATG network.

“It’s not just about bandwidth, though,” explained Spivey. “Airlines will have to provide hardware that offers security, redundancy, and network availability. Flight attendants and pilots are not the Geek Squad; they cannot be expected to debug WiFi problems on the plane or be forced to restart the router and cut everybody’s connection.”

Upgrading the Aircraft Experience

Improving the passenger experience is also tied to aircraft upgrades, and the time it takes to install connectivity related upgrades across an entire fleet is one of biggest barriers to an improved passenger connectivity experience. Due to the nature of these upgrades, which potentially include the installation of modems, antennas, wiring, and servers, there are a limited number of maintenance windows that provide enough time to complete these installations.

When deciding to upgrade fleet connectivity, airlines are weighing the benefits of improving passenger connectivity against the potential adverse impacts to aircraft maintenance schedules and lost revenues due to aircraft downtime.

That issue may become more of a moot point over time, however. The U.S. Federal Aviation Administration and the European Aviation Safety Agency are making strides to streamline the certification process for aircraft modifications and equipment upgrades.

And the industry has responded to the need for connectivity by offering airlines communications hardware as original equipment that can be installed on the assembly line. Los Angeles-based Global Eagle, for example, is offering an inflight WiFi system for factory installation on the Boeing 737 MAX family of airplanes. The equipment is the first catalog-selectable line-fit connectivity system available for installation during the assembly of the 737 MAX.

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