In an attempt to get a handle on the state of in-flight connectivity – the demands of passengers, the potential benefits for airlines and pilots, and the immediate future – we gathered three industry experts in a room at the Geneva headquarters of SITA OnAir to discuss the topic. Participants included Aileen McDowall from Honeywell Aerospace, Ben Griffin of Inmarsat and François Rodriguez representing the home team.

Dominic Perry, Flightglobal: To kick off, can you outline the experience passengers receive at the moment – is connectivity as robust as it needs to be?

François Rodriguez, SITA OnAir: Connectivity is a real need that passengers are demanding today. Everyone gets connected from the youngest age – when I look at my daughter she is already playing with my smartphone at three years old. The younger generation is used to those types of tools to stay connected and to play with.

On the other side, the airlines have been adopting those services differently. In the early days, they looked to sell in-flight wi-fi sessions, but free wi-fi is now becoming the new trend, as one of the amenities that the airlines provide on board.

Aileen McDowall, Honeywell: We probably forget how dramatically things have changed in the last few years. I think all of us in this room remember our first wi-fi connected device and it wasn’t so long ago. Things have dramatically changed since then. Now I won’t go to a hotel that doesn’t have wi-fi, and I get really frustrated if I don’t have it at the airport. The obvious next step is to have it on aeroplanes.

DP: Do you think passengers are being well served at the moment by in-flight connectivity?

AM: No I don’t. I don’t think they have a consistent experience. I don’t think we have the speeds that they are expecting.

Ben Griffin, Inmarsat: Certainly connectivity has been around for a while and Inmarsat has been providing services to aircraft for over 20 years. Connectivity is not new, but the way it is being embraced on aircraft is.

Today I would say there is a mix of capability and service to the passenger and I think it’s that which creates the frustration. But it is not as straightforward as turning up the wick and providing more capacity and capability. With the introduction of GX Aviation later on this year, we will start to see uniformity and increasingly huge capability that airlines and their passengers can depend upon.

DP: Is there one approach that suits everyone?

BG: When we talk about the airlines as a collective industry, it is a massive generalisation. We have low-cost carriers, we have regional carriers, we have global carriers, we have widebody, single-aisle... We have to think about the philosophy of the airline, the demographic of the people they are carrying and where they are carrying them, and the propensity of their passengers to spend.

AM: I would go even further, even in an individual airline you’ve got three major groups: passengers, then the maintenance crews, and the pilots where safety services and flight optimisation are a huge benefit if they can use data on and off the aircraft. And I think that the airlines themselves are getting more and more sophisticated through their strategy, identifying what they want to achieve through connectivity.

DP: Passengers are increasingly seeing in-flight connectivity as a must-have. Are airlines in a position to meet that need?

FR: I think they are. It’s just to make the business case work for them. In the past years we have seen equipment and data costs come down and it is now more accessible for the airline to invest compared with five years ago where we were addressing the early adopters in the market. Now we have seen flagships investing in connectivity, we are also addressing low-cost carriers to provide connectivity as well, making the proposition more compelling for them.

AM: Absolutely. And I think listening to what the airlines care about is the starting point. There are some airlines who buy into it purely on the revenue case – whether they charge for it or whether they simply believe they’ll get more passengers – but most airlines want to know more. They want to know more about the cost side of things, how can they reduce their costs through connectivity. That may be on the maintenance side, that may be flight optimisation or it may be the auxiliary services. So I think that understanding the airlines’ strategy and how you can supplement that through connectivity is really critical.

FR: Instead of equipping every seat with a screen you use the screens that passengers carry on today. A recent survey we carried out reveals that 80% of people have a smartphone, 40% of people carry on both smartphones and tablets, 30% of people are carrying three devices – a smartphone, tablet and a laptop. The proliferation of devices on board the aeroplane presents a new window of opportunity to use those devices differently. Removing an in-seat screen that will be old in three years’ time, that requires heavy maintenance costs, requires weight to be carried on every single flight, is a way to optimise that trend.

DP: Presumably better connectivity benefits those in the cockpit as well?

AM: I think it’s fair to say that the consumers, the passengers have really driven the technology on the aircraft in terms of bandwidth and capability, but it really becomes an enabler for what else you can do. There is a lot of data that exists on an aircraft. If you can take that data and provide it real-time to the ground or vice versa you are able to make faster, better decisions. An example being if you had maintenance data that something had either failed in flight or was about to fail, that part could be waiting at the gate. There’s a lot of information that we don’t use today. If we are able to harness the power of wi-fi, the power of connectivity, we can get that data to the people who can make decisions based on it.

DP: Have service providers been guilty of over-promising in the past? Is that hampering passenger take-up?

BG: The industry needs to take responsibility for setting expectations and telling the marketplace what they have been doing. Inmarsat is always very responsible. SwiftBroadband works on an A380 aircraft and it does a reasonable job of servicing the expectations of those passengers. But there’s a very clear message from the operators of those type of aircraft that they need somewhere else to go. GX provides a solution to those needs. But certain suppliers in the industry talk about big numbers of bandwidth everywhere and “isn’t this great for the customer”, which is fairly irresponsible. People making the procurement decisions are not experts. Our responsibility is to turn very complicated discussion into something which a) is true and b) means something to their passengers. And I don’t think in large chunks of the marketplace that’s currently being done.

AM: You have to turn it into something that resonates… It’s no good talking in terms of bits and bytes. I think that’s critical. You can talk too much about the product and that doesn’t resonate. Can I use YouTube or watch a movie? That’s much more relevant.

FR: The worst thing that can happen is the airline gets so confused is that they operate multiple systems from multiple providers. So then basically you provide the opposite. There is no consistent experience.

AM: There’s probably a lingering concern from consumers worrying about how much it is going to cost them. It is still thought of as a luxury to connect in flight. It was expensive, but truly now it’s affordable and frankly we expect it to be free as we move forward. But I think that lingering concern is still there. You need to have a marketing campaign around what it is today – not just in terms of the capability and consistency, but also the reassurance that you are not going to go home and get a massive bill in the mail.

DP: What will alter the status quo?

BG: A very important part of that as well is the stability of connectivity. In order to have a successful deployment of the service you have to have passengers that have experienced it and liked it and therefore are likely to use it again. If you don’t have a stable service you are not going to get that. Particularly important in that is the ambassadorial role the crew take; if the crew don’t have faith and trust in a system that works properly they are very unlikely to endorse it or even announce it on board an aircraft. The crew have to be very comfortable with the fact that the service is a) there and b) operational to the satisfaction of the passengers. The last thing they want is 489 passengers asking why the wi-fi or the GSM or whatever isn’t working. That’s a hassle they could do without.

DP: What other benefits could aircraft operators see?

AM: There’s still ground that’s largely undeveloped. We are putting a lot of thought into that. I speak to airlines on a regular basis and what’s uppermost in my customers’ minds is how can the business model work for us. That’s why we are spending more and more time of thinking about the flight optimisation, the predictive trend monitoring. And I think the beauty of Honeywell is that while we are a big player in satcom equipment, we are also a big player in multiple other areas on the airplane. We see it as a way to leverage our product portfolio and think of creative new ways of driving cost efficiency. So there are a lot of good ideas we’ve got right now, some of which we are starting to bring to market.

FR: The new data pipes we are bringing are opening up a world of applications. Fuel optimisation is a key point; weather information as well. You can have weather information coming in the cockpit in a more sophisticated way compared with the flight management system. Instead of information that you need to interpret, you have more visual elements that can be displayed on an iPad to enable in-flight decisions to help optimise your route.

AM: If you are on a 10h flight the information a pilot has on the weather comes from what they got on the ground and their weather radar, which will go out only a certain distance, maybe 300-odd nautical miles. So their ability to change their flightpath is based on what they learned several hours ago and what they can see right in front of them. But if they have connectivity to the ground they can get real-time weather data that’s supplied on their EFB or on their iPad that allows them to then change their flightpath to avoid that weather pattern. Which helps safety, passenger comfort, and fuel cost.

FR: We have another application on the cockpit side that we call FMS Wind Uplink. It allows a pilot to surf the winds so they go faster. Ultimately you increase customer satisfaction because you are ahead of schedule compared with the landing plan.

BG: Not for me, but the ultimate part of connectivity changing the way we fly – I hope this will never happen – but you could have unmanned aircraft, whether cargo or passenger, flying around. It’s technically feasible today. I don’t think anyone would necessarily want to board an aircraft where there isn’t a pilot there, but that’s the ultimate solution and for that you need a highly dependable link to ensure that’s possible.

DP: If not no pilots, could you reduce it to a single pilot?

BG: Probably not because you need to have – in case of malfunction – a back-up. You could probably do that but would you want to?

AM: Honestly I think that’s a generational thing. You might say never but your daughter or son might be perfectly comfortable with that and your grandchildren might not even think twice. We have unmanned trains and do we think about that? No. I do think it changes over time and things that we don’t think that we would want, the next generation won’t even give a thought about. It will just be so commonplace.

Source: Flight Daily News