OPINION: Satellites Steer Airline Passenger Expectations

By Gez Draycott, Vice President of Porfolio Management Data Mobility, SES | April 4, 2017
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Photo: SES.

Photo: SES.

There was a time when flying meant you were unreachable for hours. That changed when mobile phones came along.

There was a time when flying meant you were offline for hours. That too changed when smartphones came along.

There was a more recent time when flying meant you were frustrated by slow and unreliable connectivity. That too is slowly changing – ever since the satellite industry started connecting planes.

Soon there will be a time when flying will mean enjoying the same connected experience as if you were in your living room. With new technology rapidly launching and evolving, this kind of always-on experience is here.

The speed of data on planes has seen approximately 500 fold growth since satellites have been used to provide connectivity on planes. For passengers, this means they are closer and closer to the speeds they’re used to on the ground, and able to enjoy in-flight entertainment on their own devices. With 65% of today’s travelers choosing to access entertainment services on their own device (according to the SITA 2016 Passenger IT Survey), this is definitely a key differentiator.

It’s no surprise that over 50% of airline passengers say the availability and quality of in-flight Wi-Fi is increasingly a factor in their airline choice.

Technological Advances, Faster Connectivity

The comprehensive coverage provided by traditional geostationary satellites over countries and continents are ideal in enabling planes to get the connectivity they need. For planes traveling on highly dense flying routes, high throughput beams on satellites that deliver a much higher data rate – thanks to frequency reuse – will ensure the speed of connectivity is not compromised even when hundreds of planes are online.

For airlines, high-throughput satellites (HTS) mean 20 times more. For passengers, HTS simply means faster, better connectivity. When nearly half of passengers are willing to pay for internet and entertainment services (IATA 2015 Global Passenger Survey), it’s easy for airlines to see the opportunity.

This year SES will launch three satellites with HTS capacity which will complement our robust, global network of over 50 geostationary widebeam satellites. This mix, together with the capability to deliver connectivity across multiple bands (Ka- and Ku-), means we have a unique approach, and a unique way to serve the aeronautical sector. This unique approach enables more than cost-effectiveness and increased throughput; it offers better scalability and ideal coverage, flexibility, resilience, quicker time-to-market, and a future-proof and open architecture.

Behind The Space Scene: Ground Control

Investment in space also means investment on the ground. As HTS satellites require a dedicated ground operation, half of our investment in HTS capability in space actually happens here on Earth.

In preparation for our first HTS satellite launch in 2017, multiple gateways and antennas have to be built to efficiently serve the aeronautical market, allowing new levels of flexibility in everything from payload design to capacity reuse. Plus, new super nodes and teleports are the brains behind the intelligent and automated routing of data and HTS capacity, which enables connected aircraft worldwide. All of this enables distinctive customized solutions that meet the exact specifications of each different situation.

More and more, passengers will find they’re having better in-flight experiences, and begin to expect it from airlines. Most of them will probably never realize that wonders of technology, much higher in the sky, are behind this always-on experience. Satellites will continue to push the boundaries of what’s possible in the air.


Gez Draycott is the vice president of portfolio management data mobility at one of the world’s biggest satellite operators, SES. His responsibilities include designing satellite solutions for mobility solutions that are applicable for aeronautical, maritime and land based mobility applications. 

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