Connectivity explored as AirAsia X mulls long-term IFE&C strategy

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Malaysian long-haul low-cost carrier AirAsia X is exploring the possibility of equipping its newly-ordered Airbus A350 widebodies with in-flight Wi-Fi to put passengers in control of their own in-flight entertainment (IFE) experience.

Such a strategy is just one of a number of considerations for AirAsia X, which has an order for 10 A350s with the European airframer. But it exemplifies the type of innovative thinking for which the low-fares carrier is becoming renowned, according to Shashank Nigam, the CEO of SimpliFlying, a global airline marketing and branding consultancy.

"Half the people on-board generally carry laptops and what AirAsia X can do is to have portable units which can be rented and just plugged into the power outlets. There you go - you have reduced all the wiring, slashed most of your licensing costs - with Disney, Universal and Pixar, for example - and that makes so much more sense because it's on-demand. This is certainly something AirAsia X can do," says Nigam, who recently spoke at an industry conference where AirAsia X's CEO also spoke.

Asked to comment on AirAsia X's long-term in-flight entertainment and connectivity (IFE&C) plans, Tim Claydon, a director and consultant for the carrier, says: "We're looking at the direction of how in-flight entertainment and connectivity is going to develop and will allow us to really be able to provide customers options without us having to pay the significant cost that exists around an embedded [IFE] solution.

"From a low-cost, long-haul perspective, we can't simply afford to pay for one of the systems from the big [IFE] providers. That's pure cost. We have definitely tried to think outside the box with both existing providers and potential new providers on how we can still provide the level of entertainment and options that someone would need to have on an eight or 12-hour flight without the commitment or expense of major projects."

Claydon says AirAsia X down the road is open to "innovative solutions, both with regard to connectivity and entertainment options".

The carrier has not settled on any particular in-flight connectivity solution. "I think that down the road, something we think about is how do we retain that flexibility? How do we let people utilize what they want to...entertain themselves, and how do we provide for that without the capital expense? I think obviously, for us, it's not as simple as sticking [Aircell's] Gogo onboard. We're long-haul, we're multi-national. There isn't some simple technology right now that really provides a justifiable business model for us, but as things develop in whatever space there is in connectivity, I think there is going to be a reincarnation of long-haul connectivity and we will stay very close to that if we can make it work," says Claydon.

At a minimum, says Claydon, an in-flight connectivity solution "needs to pay for itself" and "if it can become a revenue stream for us, so much the better". It cannot, he stresses, "become a cost for us" as "we would not jeopardize our ability to put the lowest fares in the market".

Nigam believes AirAsia X has the right idea. "AirAsia X will succeed because of the people at the top, like CEO Azran Osman-Rani, who are willing to question all assumptions," he says.

Airline group AirAsia in March signed a firm contract with in-flight mobile communications specialist OnAir to install mobile telephony on Airbus A320s that AirAsia and its Thai and Indonesian affiliate carriers operate.

AirAsia has a 16% stake in AirAsia X. Aero Ventures, which AirAsia CEO Tony Fernandes started with other prominent Malaysians and Air Canada's Robert Milton, owns 48%.