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The Connected Aircraft: Four Airlines, Four Views – From our archives

By | June 1, 2017

In anticipation to our Global Connected Aircraft Summit 2017, we bring you this article from our archives where we talked to Air France/KLM, Emirates, Lufthansa and JetBlue about their in-flight connectivity strategies. This story was originally published in our September 2013 issue of Via Satellite.

The era of the connected aircraft is here and satellite is powering solutions that will impact the crew, business travelers, and people flying in economy. In-Flight Connectivity (IFC) services, which were touted initially as tailored for business travelers, have now become part of the mainstream as satellite plays a bigger role in the future of providing connectivity to aircraft all over the globe.

Air France/KLM, Emirates, Lufthansa and JetBlue are some of the biggest airlines around, and all are at different stages of their IFC strategy providing different approaches to the market. Executives from these four, very different airlines, share some exclusive insights on their IFC plans and next steps.

The Trial

Air France and KLM recently launched an IFC test run. The two airlines, which merged in 2004 but remained two separate brands, are two of Europe’s major carriers. The trial is being conducted on one Boeing 777-300s aircraft of each airline and is expected to last between nine to 12 months. Peter Verheidje, head of R&D in-flight services for Air France/KLM sees satellite technology as a need for the company’s IFC plans.

By the end of this year, Verheidje expects the two airlines “will have a clear overview of the solutions that we are offering right now in terms of customer appreciation, take-up rate, [and] technical reliability. Findings will then be presented to senior management. We will look at future retrofits and the licensing decisions we are facing. There will be a roadmap that we recommend in 2014 and 2015 that depends on the success of the pilot, as well as the financing. To launch these services would take a considerable investment, but we need to have a positive pilot, gain some strong insights, and then work out the financing side to it,” he says. While Verheidje can’t guarantee an exact launch date for IFC services, he says it’s more likely that it will be in the second half of next year at the earliest.

The technical trial will be key to the future ambitions of Air France and KLM. In the preparation for this pilot, the two airlines went through the whole process of certification, information and technical flyalongs. “It is a complicated technology with the antenna going to the satellite and then back to the ground again. Connectivity is also shared between users and the aircraft, we have technical people from both KLM and Air France focusing on this. So, the real specific technical challenges we have faced here have been considerable. They are quite new,” Verheidje says. “One of the objectives of the pilot trial is to learn, not just on the commercial side, but also on the technical side. We want to be in a position where we can optimize the experience on the pilot trial in preparation for the first flight.”

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While other airlines have perhaps been quicker out of the blocks than Air France and KLM, Verheidje believes this is the right moment for the two airlines but that now “they cannot wait too long” to implement these services. “The actual usage amongst passengers is still very low. There is a need on behalf of passengers, but the usage isn’t there now. There is still a great deal of technology development taking place here also. You have seen some airlines like Qantas stepping out of it. We definitely feel that connectivity is the way to go and that this is the right moment and the right time,” he says.

As the two airlines have been somewhat late to market, it has given them the opportunity to assess and learn from other companies’ experiences. Verheidje says they have been examining benchmark flights in the industry, price levels and different portals, and have looked into L-band, OnAir’s SwiftBroadband, and Ku-band services. “We want a global solution. We have been monitoring the systems that other airlines have been equipping their fleets with. So there are questions: do you offer a very simple portal or do you offer additional services to generate traffic on the portal to aid connectivity? On the commercial side, we have had quite some focus on price setting and the services offered,” he says.

Another question facing any airline looking to implement an IFC strategy is whether to use Ku-band, L-band, or even Ka-band. Verheidje has considered Ka-band; “it sounds good,” he says. While it might be faster and cheaper, “two things I don’t know yet are the exact timing and when it will be mature enough to start deployment. Secondly, we also have to find out what the exact business model is for Ka-band. We are looking at Ku-band, and the potential to further scale up to super Ku, and we will keep looking at Ka-band,” he says.

The Power

JetBlue, the U.S. domestic airline, has been a market leader in the United States. It has just completed the prototype installation in its Live TV facility in Orlando and has recently gained the necessary approvals as part of its process toward getting a supplemental type certificate (STC) from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) allowing the airline to fly aircraft with passengers and the Fly-Fi gear installed on it. Jaime Perry, business development director, JetBlue, admits the airline is now getting “very close” in terms of launching the services.

Perry believes Wi-Fi services could become an important differentiator for airlines. “I was at the Aircraft Interiors at Hamburg, where the CEO of GoGo said a large number of customers select their flight based on the availability of Wi-Fi services. Now, all things being equal, Wi-Fi has become a decision making factor. If you have a Wi-Fi product that is better than the other offers, and free when others are offering a paid model, that is a killer combination,” he says.

JetBlue plans on offering the service for free using Ka-band satellite technology since the airline believes it will offer the best customer experience for its passengers. Perry talks about the concept of the “connected aircraft,” which depicts a whole aircraft being online with a constant broadband connection from origin to final destination. He believes this concept also encompasses an overall improvement of the operations of an aircraft. “You look at more operational things, and the ability to optimize the way the aircraft is flown, real-time weather updates so you can potentially change your flight path is something else that could result. You can do things like optimize fuel efficiency of the flight plan, etc. There are any number of things you can do operationally to make this a better experience for customers. I think that is the paradigm shift. It is not just about in-flight entertainment, it is about bringing the whole aircraft online and seeing what that allows you to do,” he says.

The company is working with ViaSat for its IFC plan, and Perry admitted picking the right technology was a decision “with many layers to it.” Going with ViaSat was certainly not the easy option. “You want to have something that is as powerful and fast as possible. But, the more power and more grunt that you opt for, the more substantial the installation is on the aircraft. Therefore, the more designs, certifications and complexities you then have to add into the mix. There is trade-off between power, quality of service versus complexity and difficulty of installation. We opted for the most powerful product that is out there, but that means you have to do some significant structural alterations to the aircraft with all the necessary testing and certification that goes with that” Perry says.

ViaSat’s recent announcement of its ViaSat 2 satellite is good news for JetBlue since the airliner offers numerous flights to Latin America and the Caribbean. Initially, these flights would not provide IFC services but with the new satellite, this will change. “ViaSat 2 was designed to complement the coverage of ViaSat 1 in the United States, but also to expand international coverage as far south as Colombia. International is about 39 percent of our destinations so that is a big deal for us,” Perry says.

The Shift

Germany-based Lufthansa was one of the first major airlines to launch IFC services. Bernhardt Seiter, director, product management, cabin interior & IFE, Lufthansa admits that in the four years since the carrier announced its plans there have been a few lessons. Seiter says the number one learning is that the ramp-up period for launching such a service and bringing it to a level that passengers would expect is basically much longer than people expected; he calls this the “key learning” from Lufthansa’s experience so far. Seiter admits the airline has had to work hard to get service delivery to an acceptable level. “It has taken two years to achieve that. With regards to the rollout, we have installed 90 wide-body aircraft. We are now approaching the end of the rollout period,” he adds.

Seiter is also perfectly placed to talk about the different trends in the market over the last few years. He talks of a fundamental shift taking place: the service was initially targeted at business travelers for doing emails, but the rationale for IFC services has now been completely turned on its head, with economy classes as the major users of the service. “We see today a higher usage in economy class than in premium classes despite some limiting factors that you have in economy class,” he says. “Using tablets in economy means you have limiting factors such as power and space. But, despite all that, we see high usage rates in economy compared to premium classes. When we launched the services, tablets were really just at the beginning. We did not expect such a tremendous market growth of tablets over the last two to three years.”

Seiter admits it is a challenge for the satellite industry to keep up with these different passenger behaviors. “The expectation of the passenger is to have a similar experience to what they have [on the ground] using DSL and fiber technologies. Their expectations have grown faster than the capacity could be expanded in the air. That has been a key technical challenge,” he says. “Five years ago, no-one could really imagine that people would stream videos onboard an aircraft. Today, they are more and more likely to do that. Internet behavior changes faster than the ability of service providers. This is mainly driven by the market penetration of tablets.”

Like a number of airlines, Lufthansa will look to improve the operational experience. It is planning to integrate its cabin crews with the service giving tablets to all its members this year. This will enable crew to do mileage upgrades, for example, or do remote maintenance activities, as well as additional reporting activities, which create value to the customer. This is what Lufthansa’s next push will be on.

However, when it comes to using Ku-band or Ka-band, Seiter admits the picture is becoming more complex. In the long haul market, Seiter says, “We still think Ka-band is very far into the future – we are talking many years. There are still not many Ka-band satellites over water and yes, there are Ka-band satellites are over ground. [But] we don’t see companies launching satellites just to provide connectivity to airlines. We have severe doubts as to whether that is going to be a business case for any provider. We still have a very much ‘wait and see’ opinion. We think Ku-band for wide-body aircraft will still be the dominating technology for the next three to five years.”

However, the picture is different for regional connectivity services, where Seiter says this year “the game is changing.” There are now one or two providers that are really able to offer services over European landmass, such as ViaSat. “That really seems to provide an alternative Ka-band service to European traffic in the near future. The same is happening over North America. It is not there yet, but we expect service launches based on Ka-band in the next 12 months for such services. That is something we are looking into. It is not the only technology you can provide for regional services. The main competition is air to ground which exists with GoGo in North America, and there are a couple of providers prepared to launch such a service for Europe too,” he adds.

The Blast

Patrick Brannelly, vice president, corporate communications, marketing & brand product, publishing, digital & events, Emirates, does not like what he is seeing from the companies behind some of these in-flight connectivity services and says the firms’ involved need to “up their game.” He says that waiting months for software fixes to systems is nothing short of “absurd.”

Brannelly pulls no punches and says when things go wrong with systems and passengers are unable to connect, all those involved need to respond faster. “There are many points of failure in a system as complex as in-flight communications,” he says. “Often when they do the analysis and come out with the fix, the fix was entirely predictable and the players in the food chain of communications had not done as good a job with testing scenarios as they should have done. This is very frustrating. Avionics that go on aircraft should be tested to a very high standard. We are seeing an issue at the moment and we are being told we won’t have the fix until Q1 2014. It is absolutely absurd for us to wait that many months to get a fix. Software bugs don’t happen just in this industry. It happens to the best of them including Apple, which is rushing out a Wi-Fi fix to their latest update, but they’ll do that in a matter of days. I think some of the big players in our industry need to be able to respond faster.”

One of the biggest learnings the airline has had so far is that connecting passengers at 40,000 feet and at 500 miles an hour is a really complex business. Brannelly believes a learning curve in terms of Ka-band could be painful, given what he has seen so far.

“When the Ka-band system is launched, there is going to be a learning curve, as there has been with other communications systems to date and I just hope that for once the experts in our industry can address such issues really quickly to avoid years of pain! The track record is not good. The selection of a Ku-band system now is about our desire to get connectivity to all of our passengers in the earliest possible time frame. Our passengers cannot wait,” Brannelly says.

Emirates introduced the ability for passengers to use their own mobile phones on board back in 2008. Since then, more than 20 million mobile phones have been switched on during Emirates flights, and all of the airline’s A380 aircraft have Internet available. Being a long-standing Inmarsat customer, one of the key questions is whether Emirates will be an early mover to the Global Xpress system.

“We have been in this business a long time, which is why we are healthily skeptical about some of these new technologies,” Brannelly says. “We have aircraft today that are struggling to get switched onto SwiftBroadband, which was supposed to be launched eight or nine years ago. This is absurd. We delivered our first SwiftBroadband 777 in the last few months on a Boeing! While I understand Inmarsat are throwing the new satellites up, all the other technical stuff has to work to leverage it – and that can be a stumbling block.”

Brannelly is in no doubt that despite the technical challenges, the services are worth the effort. He says. “On certain routes such as New York, we are seeing eight percent plus of passengers connecting. The flight is over 13 hours, and the take-up is tremendous.” VS