The future of in-flight connectivity: Beyond passenger entertainment

Airlines are tech-ing up to meet passenger demands. But it’s not all fun and games. Source: Shutterstock.

TO MEET the growing demands of today’s tech-savvy (and tech-needy) passengers, airlines around the world are developing more technologies to keep travelers connected while cruising at 35,000 feet.

However, it is imperative to note that in-flight connectivity goes beyond just keeping the passenger entertained. It can also enhance flight operations, from safety and security to efficiency, to contributing to the environment positively.

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People are often on their devices updating (or stalking) social media platforms, sending messages or playing games online. In that aspect, sitting in a metal tube for a long period of time and divorcing passengers from their commonly held practice of looking at their portable electronic devices will eventually become a problem for passengers on trains, buses, taxis, and airlines.

A recent Inmarsat global survey involving 9,000 airline passengers from 18 countries across Europe, the Middle East, Asia Pacific, and North and Latin America, drew remarkable results. Sixty percent of all passengers said in-flight WiFi is now more a necessity than a luxury.

Nearly half of respondents (44 percent) said they would stop using their preferred airline within the next year if it did not offer connectivity, and 61 percent agreed that in-flight WiFi takes the anxiety out of flying because they can stay in contact with people on the ground.

The ability to connect to personal devices such as smartphones, laptops and tablets now sits within the top three considerations when choosing an airline, behind ticket price (53 percent) and flight slots (44 percent) for 40 percent of passengers who have experienced high-quality WiFi.

“Airlines have an anticipation that there’s a need that has to be filled. The problem is how to fulfill that need without losing money or without losing passengers.

“Given that our world is getting ever more connected, we who supply the pipelines to provide this connectivity certainly expect this to become a staple in the airline industry,” Honeywell Aerospace Asia Pacific’s ATM Initiatives, and Services and Connectivity Director Paul Nef told Travel Wire Asia.

“From that perspective, to just meet passenger needs (whether it is a low-cost carrier or full-service airline), airlines will be looking up ways to meet this need and expectation.”

It’s not just about fun and games

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Meeting passenger needs aside, airlines and operators can also utilize connectivity tech to increase efficiency and safety.

“The passenger side is only one small part of the equation although it’s a large, public issue for an airline. But we are finding that as we get smarter, we are learning more about what connectivity can do for us as an equipment supplier on airplanes, and for the airlines in terms of enhancing their efficiency, enhancing the repair-ability, and the forecast-ability of the failure rate of the airplanes,” Nef said.

“Large airplanes such as an A380 generate several gigabytes of data as it is traveling through the sky every hour and that’s due to the number of sensors that are put on the equipment that is installed on the airplane. In the past, the data has not been available to the airline or the maintenance organization until the airplane comes down on the ground.”

Currently, the technology used by airlines and operators to capture parameters of flight data and share it with their ground-based operational and maintenance teams is extremely limited and equivalent to the speed of dial-up Internet connections.

Can emerging technologies affect the environment positively?

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As the world moves towards a more eco-conscious mindset, emerging technologies can also affect the environment positively, as airplanes can save a lot of fuel with just good communication.

“Today, airlines are under fire in Europe for carbon emissions. Every minute that we can save while the airplane is in the air to make the flight plan more efficient – and this involves things like going around weather or going direct from one point to another – it enables us to save fuel and reduce carbon emissions. So those are green touch initiatives,” Nef explained.

“In terms of operations on the ground, if you’ve got an airplane sitting on the tarmac and passengers sitting in the airplane, and if you’ve got failure in one of the systems in the airplane, and you’ve got the air-conditioning running and the lights running, you’re essentially using up resources that you’d rather not be using.”

By streaming data real-time about the condition of the various components and systems of the aircraft to ground-based operational teams, key maintenance issues can be handled as soon as the airplane lands. The operational teams will also get a better grasp on how the airplane performs on certain routes, different weather patterns and how various airplanes in their fleets perform during different phases of flight.

What’s the future of connectivity for airlines and passengers in Asia?

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With the growing prevalence of broadband and satellite-based connectivity options, the day will come where we will see connectivity on the airplane that is equivalent to what we are used to in our homes. For this to happen, operators will have to upgrade to keep up with the times.

But of course, these changes cannot be made without certain conditions.

While airlines will provide the type of connectivity passengers would like and would use, they would still have to be cognizant of the demands of flyers who don’t care for such tech upgrades. To serve both segments, these connectivity features should not end up becoming a nuisance to the latter group, i.e. passengers talking over the phone at the top of their lungs.

For the airlines and operators, the future of connectivity is as aforementioned: safer and more secure travels, operate with more efficiency, contribute to the environment positively, and generally making the world a better place.