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Airlines Ramp Up Plans for In-Flight Connectivity Across Middle East and Africa

By | October 31, 2014

Airlines across the Middle East and Africa are looking at equipping their fleets with in-flight connectivity solutions to boost passenger numbers as well as improve operations and efficiency. We look at case studies throughout the region to see what airlines and telcos are doing to bring this market to life.
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South Africa

A Wi-Fi telecommunications company, WirelessG, based in South Africa, has launched what it claims is a “world first” mobile service where a customer who purchases a 3G/4G data bundle on the ground directly through G-Connect or through their mobile operator, can use that same account to purchase a Wi-Fi bundle to be used at the airport as well as actually onboard an aircraft. In the future, in-flight Wi-Fi will become a complementary mobile telecommunications service forming an integrated part of a mobile operator’s network. WirelessG offers 3G, ADSL, Wi-Fi and In-Flight Wi-Fi on a single online platform. Vodacom provides the satellite infrastructure to ensure that the G-Connect In-Flight Wi-Fi service will keep people connected. However, according to Carel van der Merwe, WirelessG’s CEO, there have been a number of issues when launching the service and bringing these to passengers.

“The Ku-band satellite service we received was relatively very stable. Our airline partner did an excellent job in supporting the service onboard,” he says. “Our major problem for two years was that we could not get our in-flight Wi-Fi services out of the ‘beta’ stage in order to meet the telecommunications uptime standards we are used to when providing Wi-Fi on the ground. In our specific case, we have had too many in-flight Wi-Fi hardware problems over our first two years.”

In van der Merwe’s view, the problem was actually very simple. It had nothing to do with support levels, spare parts or satellite connectivity. “You cannot fix a plane while it is flying. You have to wait for a suitable time at minimum opportunity cost to the airline. That can take between one week and one month,” he says. “A new benchmark for in-flight Wi-Fi technology solution providers is therefore to provide and support onboard in-flight telecommunications solutions that support a telecommunications carrier grade model with reliability standards that at least match aviation operation service schedules. Maybe our standards and expectations are too high at this point in time, but we refuse to take our service out of beta until it meets our standards.”

The South African market is becoming more and more interested in the service. According to van der Merwe, in recent research, more than 60 percent of consumers indicated that they will use the service. The G-Connect service is currently available on six planes on the Mango Airlines fleet of eight, which fly across South Africa and Southern Africa. “G-Connect enabled planes fly to Tanzania with this Wi-Fi service, and in fact, it has been quite successful. Despite the fact that we might lose connectivity closer to the equator due to antenna capability, the longer the flight, the better the take-up we are seeing,” says van der Merwe.

However, a current take-up rate of 2.5 to 5 percent is “too low” according to van der Merwe. This is due to the fact that WirelessG does not offer other services such as content yet, and also can’t advertise and take the service to market while still in beta. van der Merwe is confident that the growth of in-flight Wi-Fi is now on the cusp of happening. Its next phase revolves around rich content, which van der Merwe thinks will make a difference. “Once we can provide that, the take-up rate will become much higher. You have to remember that the smartphone penetration rate in South Africa more than 30 percent, so there is plenty of room for growth here,” he says.

WirelessG is in talks with a number of airlines about its services. Surprisingly, a lot of interest came from airlines in Central Africa requesting information about the service. With more than 14 million smartphone users in South Africa, he is hopeful the company is on “the right track.”

 

Middle East

The Middle East is clearly a hot spot for In-Flight Connectivity (IFC) services with airlines such as Emirates, Gulf Air and Etihad Airways quickly deploying these services. In fact, airlines in the region are some of the innovators globally when offering IFC. Patrick Brannelly, Emirates vice president for products, publishing, digital and events, says providing effective IFC services is a challenge.

“Systems are stretched but that is largely due to the exponential demand growth for data. The aviation industry also needs to up-skill to better understand how we can improve reliability and availability of these systems,” he says. “Passengers simply don’t understand or cannot accept when connectivity is broken and you’ve disconnected them from their social circles, families, businesses, etc.”

Peter Baumgartner, CCO of Etihad Airways, agrees providing these services offers a number of technical challenges, but goes on to say that, with technology innovations such as L-band, Ku-band and Ka-band, connectivity services are becoming more stable, more reliable and offering greater bandwidth. He says the main challenges are the lack of satellite coverage that prevents the use of mobile and/or Internet services over certain airspace, such as over the North Pole.

Mohamad El Assaad, senior manager of In-Flight Entertainment (IFE) and communications for Gulf Air, says the airline’s main focus is actually subsidizing the savings in operations and creating revenue platforms to provide free Internet on board. Providing free Internet means guaranteed passenger satisfaction, even if the system goes through issues, he says. Gulf Air is working on 37 projects related to operational support in connected aircraft which aims for better aircraft performance, service enhancement, immediate resolution to any complaint before it gets to social networks, and weight analytics reporting.

While having in-flight Wi-Fi clearly helps in terms of the passenger side, the benefits clearly extend beyond this. “Cabin crew and flight deck operations can utilize Wi-Fi connections to report incidents and handle medical emergencies, and our crew are also empowered to actively manage any guest issues arising in-flight via our dedicated Guest Response team based in Abu Dhabi. Our crew can contact the ground directly by phone or email to address real time queries or issues,” Baumgartner says. “Connectivity is also paving the way for us to enhance the guest experience through increased onboard retail opportunities, with the added benefit of real-time credit card transactions. Wi-Fi connections to ground-based operations are also often cheaper than other forms of aircraft to ground data transfer.”

Brannelly also believes that connectivity will help airlines hugely. “You will see other opportunities embraced very quickly. In reality it is already happening. Chances are passengers on a delayed or diverted flight have already rebooked travel and hotels before they land … and they may know more about the delay than the crew at the moment,” he adds.

 

The Ku- vs. Ka-Band Debate

One of the issues facing any airline when looking at IFC is whether to choose a solution based on Ku or Ka band. Brannelly says the future is about bandwidth and coverage.

“Ka band seems to win that argument according to most industry experts at a recent satellite forum, and I tend to agree. It is a shame it is quite late to the game and it will have to work hard not to become a Betamax. Ku has spot beam technology coming and that will need to expand globally, and very quickly in my view. However, it’s pretty clear that the whole bandwidth issue needs a serious review to support airlines over the next 20 years,” he says.

“Ka band is the fast version of the effective L-band architecture. It is promising, yet we need to assess it when Global Ka is available. So far it is just marketing and not actual to know its capabilities,” ElAssaad adds.

With most major airlines now effectively equipping their fleets, the challenge will be how they differentiate themselves in terms of their “connected” strategy. ElAssaad says that the sky is the limit in terms of what airlines can do.

“Every day we discover something new that we can invest in,” he says. “Hardware gets the aircraft connected, how the airlines utilize this with development of various software projects is the key to get to your target: free subsidized Internet. What distinguishes you from others are projects that would be linked to the connected aircraft. I believe Gulf Air is the pioneer in the field of software development in relation to operations and services. We are not aiming for passenger service through paid revenue, we want to give it for free if possible.”

Baumgartner says that on-board connectivity is definitely becoming a “must-have.” He says with more and more travellers equipping themselves with smartphones and tablets, they are demanding a connected experience onboard, similar to what they enjoy on the ground. Etihad Airways has initiated an aggressive connectivity rollout plan, which should be completed across its fleet in January 2015. At this point, all passengers will be connected, either through mobile or Wi-Fi. According to Baumgartner, this rollout plan means the airline is well on its way to becoming one of the first airlines in the world to offer fleet-wide connectivity.

“We believe that onboard connectivity is definitely a competitive differentiator and are working on new mobile technologies and applications that will further enhance the guests’ travel experience not only onboard but also at various touch-points along the guest journey,” he says.

 

Learnings

However, the road to a connected-wide fleet is not an easy one, with many challenges to make these systems work effectively. “It is more complex than anyone thought — these systems were sold as ‘simple, plug and play.’ We have invested huge amounts of time and money in improving them.” Brannelly says.

Baumgartner says the IFC market is not only expanding in terms of consumer demand, but also in terms of technology innovations to enhance the onboard guest experience, such as light-weight antennas, stable connections, wider coverage and better bandwidth for onboard Internet. “As different models emerge, more and more airlines are not only offering connectivity solutions, but also alternatives to in-flight entertainment in the form of digital or satellite television and streaming services,” he says. VS