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How inflight Wi-Fi is transforming the passenger experience

It’s strange to think that, back in 2006, Netflix was a mail order DVD company and mobile phones were used mainly to make calls. Fast forward ten years and the changes have been enormous. Neftflix now offers a richness of content that has people predicting that it, not Hollywood, may be the future of entertainment. Meanwhile phones have replaced laptops for many people – and are used for activities ranging from business collaboration to catching Pokemon.

The two drivers behind this are massively increased computing power in individual devices and ubiquitous fast broadband. Increasingly, these factors are indivisible because devices are designed to be permanently connected to the internet. There has been one glaring omission to this technological revolution though, and that is the world of aviation. Until now, inflight broadband has been patchy at best. Now, however, fast broadband is coming to airlines and it will transform the passenger experience in the way that it has transformed our everyday lives.

In 2015 Lufthansa announced that it was bringing broadband to its short-haul flights in partnership with Inmarsat and Deutsche Telekom. The company’s Chairman and CEO, Carsten Spohr described this development as “of extreme importance.” If anything this is an understatement. If you look at sectors ranging from hotels to coffee shops, broadband has changed them utterly.

A woman using a mobile phone on an aircraft

Digital transformation

The change that airlines will see is likely to be greater and faster. All the technology is already here – except (in most cases) fast, reliable broadband. Moreover, people are so used to being online that they often feel digital withdrawal on long-haul flights. Small wonder that a 2016 Inmarsat survey of 9000 fliers showed 83% of passengers would choose an airline that offered inflight Wi-Fi over a similar carrier that didn’t.

So, what is likely to change for passengers?

For starters, broadband is likely to make people happier. Most people find long-haul flights very dull. Of course, you can watch a couple of films and read a book, but that still leaves another six hours to kill. But if passengers can use social media, shop, catch up on box sets, play online games and explore their destination virtually, they are likely to be a lot less bored. This, as anyone who’s travelled with kids will tell you, is very important. The dead time they spend in the air will suddenly be useful, fun time. They’ll enjoy flights more and this will engender loyalty and reduce dissatisfaction.

It’s likely that airlines will be able to charge for Wi-Fi initially. But in the long term, expect some to offer it for free. However, this doesn’t mean there will be no money to be made. 

Clear benefits

As the broadband enabler, it means airlines can choose what that service offers. It might, for instance, partner with Sky to offer pay-per-view live sporting events. It could cut deals with e-tailers and sell advertising space. With ads, the airline will have a big advantage: it will be able to tell companies exactly who they are selling to – segmenting them into audience profiles and using real-time data to deliver personalised advertising. In a related vein, some airlines may wish to offer flyers free internet access in return for watching an advert.

Flyers will also be able to do more in the way of personal admin. They’ll be able to track their baggage, order inflight meals, hire cars at their destination and so on. The duty-free experience could also be transformed, with passengers ordering products from their phones and tablets and arranging to have them delivered to their homes, or the hotel at their destination. What’s more, all credit card transactions will be processed in real time.

All this represents a win-win. Passengers will have a far richer, more personalised experience while they’re flying and airlines will have new revenue streams. Because margins on many seats are so low, this extra revenue could make a significant difference, especially in economy.

In the business cabin, the work-based benefits of increased connectivity are clear. For business flyers, time spent in the air often represents lost productivity. Being able to hold virtual meetings, make conference calls and work on collaborative documents in the air will be a real game-changer. Again, the airlines that offer it are likely to enjoy greater satisfaction and loyalty – and business flyers are the high-margin customers the airlines want to attract and keep. Eventually it will become the norm.

The final big change in the passenger experience is likely to be BYOD – or bring your own device. This is a trend that started in corporations – as consumer electronics improved, people wanted to use their phones and laptops for work rather than the ones their employers issued. Passengers already use devices such as Kindles and iPads on planes. But once inflight broadband is widely available, it seems likely that the case for no longer installing seat-back screens will be made.

Again this is a development that benefits everyone. Flyers will have a better experience using devices that belong to them (and that are far more powerful than seat-back screens). As for the airlines, by not putting in screens, they could save over $4m on a 747-400 – and around 2500 kilos in weight.

The aviation connectivity revolution has been a long time coming – but it’s now set to change the way we travel forever.