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Getting the message

Costs are coming down, but not as quickly as passenger demands to stay connected are going up. Tom Pleasant asks: how can the asset-heavy aviation industry keep its customers happy without breaking the bank?

Most parents will appreciate the love/hate relationship they can have with demanding children. Often smelly, dirty and noisy, they break everything and demand the latest must-have gadget right now. But as a parent, your job is to look after them regardless of their unreasonable demands.


Which is almost exactly how many professionals in the aviation industry think about their passengers, particularly when it comes to their expectations. For example, every day the public grows more reliant on the internet and to seeing their personal computing devices grow more sophisticated. They have come to expect that level of sophistication and connection everywhere they go. That’s not the easiest of things for an industry to match at the best of times. For the aviation industry, which certainly does not move as fast as its aircraft, it’s like an elderly relative trying to chase a toddler.


Since in-flight connectivity requires heavy investment, but has a low payback period, it is easy to see why fast developments in technology make airlines reluctant to invest in the short-term. Instead, they adopt a ‘wait and see’ approach. However, like it or not, that approach is not sustainable.


“This is happening, and it is happening now,” says Michael Small, Chief Executive Officer at Gogo. “Communications technology does evolve rapidly, but the days of wait and see are waning.”


David Bruner, Vice President, Global Communications Service at Panasonic Avionics agrees: “The market is exploding, because information technology has changed so dramatically over the last three to four years. That has meant while the world has embraced connectivity, we are having to keep up.”


While, as Bruner says, passenger expectations are going up “exponentially” and the ability to connect to the internet and to make phone calls in-flight usually tops passenger surveys, there have been mixed results for airlines running trials.


“So far, the take rate [of in-flight connectivity by passengers] is just plain low,” says Bill Sullivan, Director of Business Development at satellite communications company ViaSat. “That’s caused by the friction of having to pay for it. But [airlines] can’t give it away for free, because they don’t have the capacity to support the high take rate that would create. They tried that [in] the Gogo trials in 2010. Gogo tried offering a free service that Google sponsored, but the take rates were so high they couldn’t sustain the bandwidth to maintain an experience to generate a high adoption. No one won, everyone lost. It was really terrible.


“You will see a similar thing if the Ku service is offered for free, because it doesn’t have the available capacity or the economics to sustain a high-speed experience. What an airline needs is a very strong experience by the passenger, something similar to what they see in other environments – the office, coffee shop or at home, but offered in a way that [means the cost] is low.”


Gogo may disagree with that, but there’s no denying the problem airlines have with providing a smooth service. While service providers may talk of delivering, for example, a 12Mb/s performance, that will usually be a test speed – in other words, not what is experienced in practice.


“Just talking about speed is profoundly unsatisfying,” says John Guidon, Chief Technology Officer of Row 44. “People don’t get on a plane to have the fastest wifi in the universe. So what if the speed limit on a highway is 65mph if you are sat in a traffic jam? What people are really interested in is page load time. They just want to get what needs to be done, done. They want the same experience as at home.”


James Pauly, Senior Director Media and Connectivity at Thales Avionics, agrees: “It’s about allowing them to live normal lives. You are taking them out of their home and putting them into a constrained environment, [so] it is important to allow them to live their normal lives as much as they can.”


The problem for slow-moving airlines is that the technology is still relatively young and evolving all the time. Much of the hard technological work has been done, admittedly, but the foundations are far from stable to plan a five-year business case for an entire fleet. Then there is the knowledge of exactly how many people really want it, how much bandwidth they expect and, crucially, how the airline can make money from it. The variables make it a difficult choice for any company. >>

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