(Photo: Alaska Airlines)
ST Engineering iDirect and its partners are hosting a series of webinars focused on advanced mobility technology and its impact and importance to end user customers. As part of that series, which begins with an aero webinar event Thursday, March 10th, ST Engineering iDirect sponsored the following article to gather airline perspectives on the value of in-flight connectivity.
This week will mark the two-year anniversary of the World Health Organization officially declaring the outbreak of COVID-19 as a pandemic.
While the last two years have been unlike any other in the history of the global passenger-carrying air transportation industry, growth in adoption of in-flight connectivity (IFC) and its ability to enable innovative new applications for airlines keeps expanding.
Recent reports published by Euroconsult and Valour Consultancy, for example, show that for most major airlines, connectivity has become more of a basic feature of their in-flight experience for passengers and a newer, faster medium for transmitting critical aircraft data to pilots, maintenance technicians, and other airline stakeholders who require it.
A Jan. 31 update on global IFC installation trends posted by Valour Consultancy’s Daniel Welch estimates that through the end of the third quarter 2021, the global IFC installed base was just below 9,300. According to Valour, North America remains the most connected and active region as well, with almost two thirds of the North American commercial active fleet already featuring IFC.
Southwest Airlines was one of the earlier North American carriers to invest in connectivity—under a 2013 agreement with Anuvu (formerly Global Eagle)—with the Texas-based carrier’s entire Boeing 737 fleet equipped with satellite connectivity. In an emailed statement to Avionics International, several representatives for Southwest’s IFEC team said they’re still looking at new applications they can enable with connectivity under a new modernization effort.
“On January 26, 2022, we launched the enablement of Venmo as a form of payment in the Inflight Wi-Fi Portal. Now, Customers have three different digital payment options for Inflight Internet including Apple Pay, PayPal, and Venmo. On February 15, 2022, we launched a new movie trailer feature: As customers browse through the movie options onboard, they can watch the trailer instead of just reading the synopsis,” the Southwest Airlines team said. “Since 2015, Flight Ops has partnered with Marketing and Customer Experience to utilize a small amount of Wi-Fi to connect applications on the Pilots’ Electronic Flight Bag (EFB). These apps help support the operation and advise Pilots of turbulence, radar, and updated weather forecasts.”
The Southwest Airlines fleet is equipped with Anuvu's in-flight connectivity technology. (Photo: Southwest Airlines)
On the flight operational side, Southwest first started adopting a paperless flight deck with EFBs in 2014, and has periodically added new capabilities since then. As an example, Southwest pilots use the WSI Pilotbrief Optima EFB application to view live weather in-flight while connected to Wi-Fi.
“In regards to fleet maintenance, flight data, engine data, and real-time data downloads, we have identified a solution for optimizing our operation via an e-Enablement utilizing Anuvu IFE Modernization effort. Since 2015, Flight Ops has partnered with Marketing and Customer Experience to utilize a small amount of Wi-Fi to connect applications on the pilots’ EFB. These apps help support the operation and advise pilots of turbulence, radar, and updated weather forecasts,” Southwest Airlines said.
Alaska Airlines is another North American carrier that was an early IFC investor, first equipping its aircraft with Wi-Fi in 2011, before upgrading to Intelsat’s faster 2Ku satellite connectivity in 2018. The airline has also traditionally been one of the more technology-forward carriers based in the U.S., and it took advantage of the upgraded connectivity speeds to enable a trial period use of the connected EFB applications Traffic Aware Strategic Aircrew Requests (TASAR) and Traffic Aware Planner (TAP) in recent years.
NASA first developed TASAR as a cockpit automation software capable of simultaneously monitoring real-time weather, winds, air traffic, and restricted airspace to provide re-route recommendations to pilots every 60 seconds. TAP is capable of monitoring changes in headwinds and also couples navigation data pulled from onboard systems with real-time information generated by the connectivity featured on Alaska’s fleet. The data is analyzed, and the system then scans the local air traffic center broadcasts throughout the course of a flight for potential conflicts before providing suggestions to pilots for a more efficient route.
During a recent Connected Aviation Intelligence webinar series co-hosted by Avionics International and Via Satellite, Bret Peyton, director of flight operations engineering and fleet technology for Alaska Airlines, said the carrier is still evaluating new operational uses of connectivity while monitoring the amount of bandwidth necessary to provide new connected operational applications for its fight crews and passengers.
“We’re working with some partners right now to take advantage of some flight deck route optimization concepts and hopefully the software, the computational algorithms soak up less bandwidth and hopefully you have that happening as you have overall costs going down from our service providers. Certainly there is going to be an increased demand for bandwidth on the guest side and definitely on the operational side,” Peyton said.
During that same webinar series, several other airlines also discussed how they observed increases in demand from passengers for connectivity that allows them to use the type of bandwidth-intensive streaming, video-conferencing, and other applications that became increasingly important for connecting businesses, colleagues, and organizations who faced COVID-19 travel and policy restrictions throughout the pandemic.
“NSR gathers that demand for in-flight Wi-Fi is at an all-time high as passengers return to flying. This trend pushes airlines to a tight position of making the critical decision of defining their inflight connectivity strategy. One of the tough choices airlines have been battling is whether to offer free onboard Wi-Fi and how to bankroll the associated expenses,” Joseph Ibeh, a market analyst with Northern Sky Research (NSR), wrote in a September blog post outlining some of the insights gathered from NSR’s Aeronautical Satcom Market Report 9th edition.
Tiina Suvanto, head of customer experience at Finnair, was also a participant in the CAI webinar series and explained how the airline manipulated the connectivity already featured on its in-service aircraft—Panasonic Avionics on their widebody fleet and Viasat on their narrow bodies. According to Suvanto, one of the new IFC applications they recently enabled was developed based on the timing of some of the routes they operate between Helsinki and Asia Pacific destinations.
“Like so many other airlines, we have a news solution developed by ourselves so that digital newspapers are delivered to the portal, they’re readable from the portal, and they’re delivered through the satellite connection to the aircraft server. We designed it so that we also get fresh newspapers. Our aircraft network operates in a way that most of the flights from Asia to Helsinki leave in the middle of the night in Finnish time. So that newspaper, Helsinki Sanomat, is pushed to our aircraft portal at the same time that it is pushed to their digital printing house, and you’re getting the news fresh, in real-time,” Suvanto said.
Finnair unveiled its new, spacious long-haul cabin featuring a brand-new Business Class and exciting new Premium Economy cabin as part of a major investment to enhance the customer experience. The airline's IFEC manager appeared on a 2021 webinar series hosted by Avionics International and Via Satellite. (Photo: Finnair)
Since they offer connectivity from different networks based on aircraft type, Finnair developed its own internal portal, the Nordic Sky Portal, so that the login and interface is the same for every passenger on every flight.
Similar to Finnair, Air France KLM also offers connectivity from different IFC service providers and has internally developed a passenger access portal that makes the user interface the same for passengers regardless of the network they’re using. Sam Krouwer, product owner of in-flight connectivity at Air France KLM said that has been an essential element of their passenger experience strategy in relation to access to Wi-Fi for passengers.
Krouwer expressed interest in the future possibility of Low Earth Orbit (LEO) satellites being capable of filling in coverage gaps for some of the routes included in their current operation.
“What was new for me to learn was that LEO [satellites] could solve the coverage issues we have around polar areas, which is a challenge on some of the routes we fly," Krouwer said during his appearance on the webcast series. "At KLM, we fly North Atlantic routes a lot, and it is a pain for our customers when the connectivity drops after you reach [the] Arctic region, so let’s hope LEO can fix that problem for us.”