GCAS 2019: Airlines Navigate Connected Business Models, Apps and Services

In 2019, in-flight (IFC) connectivity technology is at a generational standstill, leaving airlines and the service providers and equipment suppliers they work with to optimize the business models, data transmissions and performance behind what is already flying today.

During the 2019 Global Connected Aircraft Summit, managers, directors and executives from the passenger experience, flight operations and engineering divisions of 10 of the world’s largest airlines provided in-depth perspectives on growing pains they’re experiencing and where they want to go in the future with the IFC technology they’re currently operating and maintaining.

Optimizing Cabin IFEC and Business Models

One of the biggest discussion points from a cabin in-flight entertainment and connectivity (IFEC) perspective discussed across all of the panels at GCAS this year was whether or not all airlines will eventually make access to in-flight connectivity free.

What are the main barriers blocking widespread deployment of free access to in-flight Wi-Fi?

It comes down to the intertwined economics behind who makes the antennas, modems and wireless access points that airlines actually use to provide connectivity to passengers and who actually operates the service that gives those same passengers the bandwidth and capacity to use that connection. Each of these players, the airline, service provider and equipment maker needs to make a profit. The problem is, most airlines still have no way of knowing how many passengers are actually going to pay for IFC access on a given flight.

Another major roadblock to the use of a free business model is the ongoing inconsistency of the performance of most IFC networks.

Norman Haughton, director of in-flight entertainment and connectivity product and analytics at Air Canada said his airline, like most others, still has not perfected the business model behind operating the service that their fleet is now entirely equipped with.

“We’ve looked at free many, many times. I would say it’s less about financial restriction and more so about product consistency,” said Haughton, noting that Air Canada has a fleet of 400 aircraft with mixed equipage consisting of Gogo’s older, slower air to ground network and its newer, speedier 2Ku satellite-based network.

“How do we offer something that’s consistent across an [air-to-ground] ATG network that was built and designed a decade ago, and 2Ku, which has significantly more capabilities? How do we ensure we’re delivering something that people can expect and rely on? I think that is where we struggle.”

Another Canadian carrier, WestJet, is in a much earlier stage of in-flight connectivity deployment as compared to Air Canada. According to Jag Sandhu, product owner IFEC for the IT division of WestJet, the regional airline’s entire fleet will be connected to the Panasonic Avionics satellite network by 2020. WestJet initially introduced IFC access at a fee of $7.99 per passenger for the duration of a flight. Sandhu said WestJet’s current focus is on connecting the onboard experience to a passenger’s entire travel experience.

“I think there’s needs to be a shift from an airline and satellite provider perspective on making it easier for our guests,” said Sandhu.

“I know a lot of folks are looking at it from when you’re onboard and connected, how does that experience look like? One thing that we’re really focused on right now is how to make that customer experience consistent throughout the whole process. Not just onboard, but how do we make our whole digital platform, from our website to our airports to our onboard connectivity, one cohesive experience.”

J.D. Power’s 2019 North American Airline Satisfaction Study tends to agree with Sandhu’s perspective. Despite the speeds and robustness of newer networks enabling in-flight video streaming and other more bandwidth intensive applications, free or not, passengers still find the reliability of in-flight internet to be poor. The study, based on responses from 5,966 passengers that took flights on North American airlines between March 2018 and March 2019 calls out in-flight services, including Wi-Fi, as the lowest ranked part of the passenger experience.

A major reason that passengers are still not satisfied with the performance of in-flight connectivity they get on a widespread basis is that it still does not match what they have become accustomed to on the ground. That’s true not only of the commercial airline passenger, but also from the perspective of leadership within airlines.

“There’s so much that we can do through an API ecosystem on ground applications that we still don’t see a reason why they cannot be taken into the onboard experience. There’s so many great applications that we’re developing that are so restricted onboard, and that’s because of the reliability of the connectivity,” said Pablo Gomez, vice president of e-commerce at Aeromexico.

Three different aircraft connectivity service providers enable in-flight internet access on Aeromexico aircraft, including Gogo, Panasonic and Viasat. Beyond their most recent passenger facing connected amenity—free streaming of Netflix content on Gogo-equipped aircraft—Gomez said Aeromexico’s biggest concern right now is not using passenger access to in-flight internet to improve their net promoter score (NPS).

In May, Aeromexico introduced free Wi-Fi-based texting for passengers, and said that has only lead to a slight increase in the take rates of the average number of passengers actually using the connectivity which could then lead to an increase in their NPS. Thus far, only about 1.5 percent of Aeromexico passengers are actually using in-flight internet on average, and Gomez wants to get that number closer to 20 percent.

“Ultimately, we want to use connectivity to boost our NPS and customer experience. The most recent news is the introduction of our free texting capabilities. The challenge there is that we’re working with three different vendors. We have a mix that includes Viasat, Gogo and Panasonic. Every initiative that you introduce has to be negotiated with each vendor separately, so that’s a challenge,” said Gomez.

Operations and Maintenance

Airlines also have their own individual approaches to deciding how pilots and maintenance technicians can use newer connectivity platforms to improve their on time arrival rates, gain access to real time weather updates and communicate with other divisions of their organization.

Michael Garman, manager of avionics engineering at Allegiant Air, said the low cost Las Vegas-based carrier recently starting using cellular networks instead of the legacy Aircraft Communications Addressing and Reporting System (ACARS) link to transmit data from on-the-ground aircraft to their central data repository system. While Allegiant does not actually feature IFC onboard their fleet, Garman said the focus right now is to continue to expand their on-the-ground connected aircraft applications.

“We’re looking at a new use case for wireless access points,” said Garman. “Right now we have one airplane that has a wireless access point in it, and this is an on ground thing only. We have contracted maintenance, and we don’t have our own hangars, so the idea is to make the airplane a hotspot where the mechanic can use their iPad to connect, look at manuals and print things,” said Garman.

Elsewhere, airlines are taking different approaches to customizing how, when, where and why pilots use in-flight internet onboard.

As an example, Jason Brown, manager of flight technical operations at Air Canada, said his division is evaluating deployment of a dedicated Wi-Fi network for their flight crews.

Another major connected flight operations application being used at Air Canada is pilot access to real-time turbulence reports. Their pilots are able to access reports and forecaster created alerts using the Weather Channel’s flight planning and operations applications WSI Fusion and WSI Pilotbrief. Traditionally, flight operations personnel, pilots and aviation meteorologists received coded verbal reports with limited information on flight conditions known as PIREPS, or pilot reports. Now, that information is becoming increasingly more graphical through connected tablet applications for pilots.

Brown also discussed some of the activities that passengers and even service providers and avionics makers never witness.

How does Air Canada phase in new connected pilot applications seamlessly, without disrupting their the 1,600 flights they operate on an average daily basis? Through a staggered process where the application is first introduced to the most experienced pilots.

“We have a very robust deployment process, including what starts out as a lengthened test phase that has no real time frame around it. We study it, take a look at the human factors element and the performance of the connectivity with a very small group of our pilots in operation. Once we get beyond that we have these two operational test groups, comprised of first officers and captains, that brings the new app to between 300 to 400 pilots. From there we continue in staggered waves toward full deployment. At no point are we sending a single new application to all 4,400 pilots,” said Brown.

Despite the development and use of new connected EFB applications that give pilots real time weather updates and expand access to turbulence reports from other aircraft flying along their same route, the use of the EFB in most cockpits is still somewhat limited. Brown said Air Canada, like most airlines, have whitelisted the websites and applications that pilots can use when airborne, giving them very limited access to the full capabilities of the IFC onboard.

Some airlines want to get to a point where it becomes normal for pilots to use their iPads at 30,000 feet the same way they do on the ground.

John Merritt, director of flight operations flight deck technologies at United Airlines outlined this future operational structure for the connected cockpit. During a case study discussing United’s connected flight deck strategy, he said the goal is to get to a point where there is not much difference between how a pilot in the air or an average mobile device user on the ground browses the internet.

“I don’t want one data element, I want them all,” said Merritt. “Our pilots are absolutely asking for communication in today’s world. They are comfortable with the chatting and the texting and the messaging that that’s happening. It doesn’t have to all be voice. They want to be able to digitally talk to dispatch, maintenance and stations operators. When you’re on the ground and able to just pull out your phone and Google whatever information you seek, we’re saying in essence, we want that same ability for our flight crews.”