Customization Key for the Future of the Connected Private Jet
Supplying an appropriate amount of bandwidth to meet each customer’s individual needs is the most sensible way to implement new connectivity applications, panelists concluded during the first day of the Global Connected Aircraft Summit. During a conversation about the unique challenges of connecting business jets, the guest speakers emphasized customizing connectivity solutions on a case-by-case basis to keep costs as low as possible.
“I think it’s easy to get greedy,” said Erica Brinker, senior director of business development at Honeywell Aerospace. “Does everything need to be streamed in real time? No. It’s really thinking about what’s the appropriate amount of bandwidth for the solution that you’re putting in front of your customer.”
A one-size-fits-all solution isn’t feasible for most connectivity providers, the panelists agreed, as customer bases are fragmented by the amount end users are willing to pay to stay connected.
“In the business aviation market you see three different categories of operators,” said Lupita Wilson, channel development director at Rockwell Collins. The first, she said, are charter operators, which want to be able to get back some of the money they invest in their connectivity systems, usually by charging their customers a service fee for using that connectivity. “You also have operators that are in the business aviation private sector, and those companies assume a lot of that investment is going to be absorbed in the cost of doing business,” she said.
The third category is ultra-wealthy individuals who, as Chicago Jet Group Operations Director Mike Mitera pointed out, are “very dependent upon having full connectivity.” These are the kinds of customers who put the most pressure on airlines to maximize the breadth of their connectivity applications. At the same time, they are also more inclined to pay to stay connected.
Each of these customer categories have different requirements and expectations, and as such companies like Chicago Jet Group, which handles aircraft maintenance, must adjust their business models to accommodate the financial limitations of their individual customers. For example, Kevin Hufford, Chicago Jet Group’s avionics manager, said for some of its partners the company has removed obsolete technology such as Blu-Ray players and replaced it with hard-drive equipment capable of storing music, movies and more. “Customers can be very well entertained with that aspect and don’t necessarily have to be connected to the aircraft,” he said, which relieves some of the pressure on the airline. These inexpensive workarounds are particularly helpful for airlines that run on a “shoestring budget,” as Mitera put it.
On the other side of the spectrum are companies such as Gulfstream Aerospace. “For the majority of our customers there is a tremendous willingness to pay because they want to be connected. They will pay for the next big thing,” said Bethany Davis, Gulfstream Aerospace’s director of flight capabilities, innovation and advanced flight deck. Where it starts to get tricky, she said, is transitioning to new technology as it arrives.
“We’re working with the hardware and satellite providers [to see] how we can upgrade without having to rip the airplane apart,” she said, as equipage costs are a concern for aviation companies across all levels of the value chain.
To smooth the transition process, some larger vendors such as Honeywell Aerospace and Rockwell Collins organize sales bulletins with incentives for their customers to upgrade equipment that is approaching obsolescence, Hufford said.
Hufford also noted that integrators will try to engineer equipment to fit neatly in areas occupied by earlier generation equipment. “Then from an installation standpoint there’s a lot less reengineering. It helps keeps the cost down, which helps pull the customer in,” he said.
“It is very challenging in that there are certain components that you won’t be able to replace,” Wilson added, such as VHS players and analog TVs. “We’ve seen in the market two different ways the operators address that. One is they might not do anything until the aircraft doesn’t work anymore. Other operators budget that into their portfolio and upgrade during a major maintenance check. It’s going to be an ongoing challenge in the market with consumer technology changing so fast.”
Still, the panelists agreed that one of the biggest obstacles is companies that choose to wait to implement new connectivity applications. “[They] want to see what the next generation of avionics is going to be, and then you end up three or four years down the road and they haven’t committed yet. Those are the hardest people to sell to,” Hufford said. “They always think something better performing and more economical is going to come their way. That constant expectation that things are always going to get better is almost a hindrance.”
Ultimately, Davis said, it’s very difficult to predict what the next big tech trend will look like, and business aviation vendors must be prepared to offer new hardware and services at a low cost threshold to meet emerging customer demands. “We can only imagine what the future is going to be,” she concluded.