Hawaiian Airlines is paying close attention to the Ku-band connectivity market to determine if it should eventfully offer such a service on long-haul flights.
However, the leisure carrier is not yet certain if its passengers - most of them vacationers to Hawaii - have interest in or a requirement for high-speed Internet.
Earlier this year, Honolulu-based Hawaiian announced its selection of Panasonic Avionics' eX2 in-flight entertainment (IFE) system for 10 new Airbus A330 aircraft.
The first three leased A330s will arrive in 2010 equipped with eX2 systems that have been line-fitted in Toulouse. After that, Hawaiian will accept delivery of six firm-ordered A330s through 2014. It also holds options on a further six of the type.
© Nathan Zalcman/AirTeamImages.com
The eX2 platform supplies interactive entertainment options, including shopping, over 200 games, movies and television programming offered on a complimentary or pay-per-view (PPV) basis and one-touch communication with in-flight staff.
In the premium cabins of the new widebodies, first-class passengers will access audio and video on demand (AVOD) and other entertainment options on a high-resolution LCD 10.6 inch screen. Other features in the premium cabin include viewing personal media content on the in-seat display using an iPod, USB and audio jacks.
"The question we get is 'can we download iTunes and such'. Unfortunately no, but it does give us the opportunity if the market changes to do that sort of digital download," says Hawaiian senior director - IFE systems development and applications management Rich Coskey.
Screens in the A330's economy cabin will be 9 inches in size. Those passengers will also have access to USB and audio jacks, but no iPod connectivity.
Hawaiian will offer a selection of free content to economy-class passengers, but is still working out the details on revenue models for offering paid movies, television programming, games and other types of programming.
"We would assume business-class would be all-inclusive [as part of the service] but there may be some in-flight retail we may go after in the longer term," says Coskey.
Offering eX2 across the A330 fleet positions Hawaiian "very well against international competitors", he says.
The eX2 platform can also support satellite-based connectivity solutions - such as Panasonic's eXConnect Ku-band service - and live television. "We haven't decided to go with Ku-band or live television but the infrastructure certainly supports that. Adding capabilities [to eX2] is a lot easier than going and doing a retrofit. The system gives us a heck of a lot of options and flexibility going forward," says Coskey.
Ku-band connectivity providers are telling airlines that the service "will be competitively priced at least for data but the equipment cost is a whole other hurdle", he says. On a variable cost basis, "they are starting to get it into the area where it would become affordable."
At the moment, however, Hawaiian is taking a "wait-and-see" approach. While Alaska Airlines and Southwest Airlines are trailing Row 44's Ku-band-based high-speed Internet service on the mainland, "currently nobody is doing it over the Pacific and nobody is doing it over the Atlantic", notes Coskey, adding: "Obviously we're waiting to see how [competitor] Alaska does with Row 44 and how their trials go."
He points out, however, that "the overall demographic of people coming out here" to the Hawaiian Islands are vacationers. "We're tuning our offering to the type of people that are coming to the islands, and those are predominately visitors. The notion of urgency and staying in touch - we're not yet certain that is something our passengers would even find compelling."
Hawaiian's current long-haul fleet comprises Boeing 767-300s and -300ERs. In addition to traditional drop-down IFE, the carrier also offers complementary DigEcor portable media players to first class passengers and rents them for $15 in economy class.
"For us, a typical flight is five to six hours to the mainland. And $15, we think, is a suitable price point. The units are often popular with families," says the Hawaiian executive.
Asked if Hawaiian has any intention of retrofitting its current fleet of Boeing 767s with the eX2 system, Coskey says: "The cost of a retrofit is really high but if we were to prove on the A330s a successful business model on long-haul flying, we would definitely consider the business case for doing that."