John Padgett, chief experience officer of Carnival Corporation, an SES customer and buyer of satellite capacity said a move to Low-Earth Orbit (LEO) is great, and that the more capacity and more options will ultimately mean a better experience for the guest and the consumer.
“When I came into the cruise industry, there was this big debate about GEO [Geostationary Orbit] or MEO [Medium-Earth Orbit], and I said ‘both.’ Each of them has characteristics that are beneficial to the guests and the operations. Distance matters. Engineers are going to figure out LEO and make it cost-effective and reliable. LEO in combination with MEO and GEO, is a portfolio of capacity spanning the globe,” Padgett said.
Carnival Cruise Line, which has a number of different cruise brands, has been focused on bringing leading edge connectivity experiences to its passengers. Padgett believes companies in this area need to keep a simple, laser-like focus on the connectivity that customers expect.
“Brands have convinced themselves that their consumers are different. Connectivity is universal. Every individual is seeking fast, reliable, and affordable connectivity,” he said. “Customers will hold you accountable whether you are a cruise company, airline, train operator, any mobile platform operator. It is our job to overcome these complexities and give them what they really want. People don’t go on vacation to sacrifice, they go on vacation to have more. You don’t have to do giant research studies to know what they want. Everybody knows what they want.”
Padgett believes while there is much talk about the capabilities of tomorrow, the coming developments in LEO and MEO should not be a reason for companies to delay. “I hate when people talk about things that are coming as a reason to delay to improve your guest experience now. The fact that LEO will improve the guest experience in two to three years will do nothing for my guests today,” he said.
It is also clear that demands for bandwidth are only going to increase once cruise ships start to fill up again. Five years ago, Padgett said, a cruise ship with 4,000 to 5,000 people could have 70 Mbps of service, and when he brought 500 Mbps to a ship, it was a game-changer. Now, he forecasts connectivity will be in the range of gigabits per second very soon.
While making improvements to fleet connectivity, cruise ship operators have to deal with hardware on ships, just like airlines do. Yet Padgett said cruise ship operators shouldn’t promise one experience on one piece of hardware, and another experience on another piece of hardware, because customers don’t care about those details.
“It is your brand expectation. It is really about a consistent focus on strategy. You have never got to the end point. Focus on the here and now while setting yourself up for continuous improvement, as it is not going to stop anytime soon,” Padgett added.
Alia Al Qalam, manager of Development Engineering for Oman Air, said investments on behalf of the satellite industry in capabilities in LEO will encourage airlines to invest in more capability if they can provide better services as a result. However, past experiences with issues like outages mean airlines like Oman Air are somewhat nervous about jumping in straight away.
“We are really interested to see a more practical experience, rather than a theoretical experience. We heard a lot about LEO, that it will have better coverage, and that it will be more cost effective. We really believe in having some guarantees that will be met,” she said. “For now, we cannot judge, we are monitoring it closely. We need global coverage [and to] offer the service in a cost-effective way.”
Al Qalam talked about how airlines such as Oman Air want to embrace new technology, but have been put off by the length of time it proves to be reliable. She added: “By the time the technology we have acquired is reliable, there is a new technology to invest in. We are not enjoying any long-term stability and ROI. We need to accelerate the satellite service provider, and hardware providers need to accelerate development, but if there are issues, they need to be solved quicker. It takes us a long time to see these developments.”
In the post-COVID environment, Al Qalam said there will be a greater focus on ROI through connectivity services. She added, “We want to see ROIs, revenue streams when we invest now. It is not the same concept prior to COVID. Some would like to provide services for free. But I think the perception has changed. We need to diversify and have ancillary revenue. Yes, we want to have operational efficiency, strengthen our brand, but we want a ROI.”
Nicole Grainger, strategic marketing manager of Collins Aerospace said while advances in technology are great, higher expectations from customers will become the norm. “There was a bit of a regroup when we first hit last year. There are airlines looking to accelerate and match digital expectations. We are judging our experiences on our latest experiences with Netflix. Once passenger traffic comes back, people will have higher expectations,” she said.
For airlines, meeting these enhanced expectations will be key going forward as they look to make certain brand promises to passengers. Mohammed Jamsheer, marketing and digital director of Gulf Air said this period was putting a lot more pressure on airlines and the hospitality industry as customers are now expecting a much more seamless experience having worked remotely from home.
“We need to be cost-effective and provide a great service. I don’t think the customer knows the details of the satellite. They are exposed to Facebook, Instagram, Netflix,” he said. “When we are advertising our brand, we are exposing it to a very digital savvy population. When you sit on our plane, you want to feel it is like an ‘at home’ experience. If we can’t provide this, they will use this against us, saying our brand promise is not meeting their expectations.”
Nancy Walker, senior vice president of Aviation Connectivity for Global Eagle echoed these sentiments saying that customers and passengers expect what they have on the ground when they are in the air.
“They want a terrestrial feel, to upload photos, set up VPNs, work in the cloud. This is why latency is important. You need to partner with people that cross lines. We all talk about the satellite, but your on vessel hardware is so important. You need to partner with the right people,” she said.
Collaboration is important particularly as airlines and cruise ship operators want more flexibility going forward when investing in new capability. “You can say it takes a village to raise a child, it takes a community of providers working together in partnership. Everybody is sitting on the same side of the table. It takes a lot of people working together,” Walker added.