Reliable broadband more important than meals

Passengers want better inflight broadband – and are prepared to pay

The call to “switch all portable electronic devices to airplane mode” usually prompts weary sighs from passengers – and no wonder. Losing internet access between take-off and landing is purgatory for air travellers used to ‘always-on’ mobile broadband, and not just because those flying for business may struggle to work onboard without it. 

No internet also means no access to the digital distractions we’ve come to depend on for filling downtime. Seatback screens, books and magazines all offer some respite on longer flights, but they’re no substitute for the smartphones and tablets we now favour for everything from browsing the web to shooting the breeze on social media.

Passengers want broadband

That passengers want access to fast and reliable inflight broadband should be no surprise, but that demand doesn’t just stem from anecdotal evidence. There is, of course, plenty of that and Nick Bilton’s piece for The New York Times, that opened with “I’ve finally found something on commercial flights that’s worse than airplane food: the Wi-Fi,” no doubt resonated with many.

More concrete data comes from a 2016 survey, conducted by research company GFK for Inmarsat, of more than 9000 passengers across 27 countries around the world – “Inflight Wi-Fi: Why smart airlines need smart solutions”.

The survey found that 92% of passengers wanted inflight broadband and 83% already chose their airlines based on its availability. Again, hardly breaking news, but the fact that 54% of passengers would choose being able to stay online during a flight over a meal is rather more telling.

Always-on broadband has long since become a given at home and at work, but the massive uptake of smartphones (one-third of the world is expected to own one by 2017) and the widespread availability of high-speed 4G mobile networks mean passengers now expect the same on the move.

That perhaps explains why 35% of passengers bring two devices onboard and 34% bring three – the smartphones, tablets and laptops used freely on the ground are also what they want in the air. So much so that traditional inflight entertainment doesn’t get a look in, with just 16% of those surveyed expressing an interest.

Airlines need to meet passenger expectations or risk losing out to their competitors.

Reliability trumps all else

Given that broadband is already available on many flights, surely passengers’ needs are satisfied? Hardly. As mentioned, passengers often find existing systems slow and difficult to use. When available, one in 10 couldn’t connect at all, according to Inmarsat.

10% of frustrated would-be web browsers doesn’t sound like much, but guess what 75% of all passengers really want from inflight broadband? Reliability. That’s valued more than speed (19%) and even price (6%), though cost is still a common complaint, particularly when coupled with substandard performance. Even so, more than 60% of passengers were still prepared to pay for internet access on long and short-haul flights.

Better connections bring competitive edge

Airlines are already able meet these needs with next-generation inflight broadband that combines vastly improved reliability with much greater bandwidth. This puts a wide range of services at the passengers’ disposal, whether painless web browsing or watching live TV – and much else in between. All frustration-free and all with the smartphones, tablets and laptops they already bring onboard. Nor are these services limited to domestic flights. This technology covers the globe, not just select high-altitude hotspots. 

So with passengers craving high-performance inflight broadband and current technology failing to deliver, there’s a clear opportunity for early-adopters to gain a competitive advantage.

That’s certainly the view of Inmarsat Aviation president Leo Mondale, who gets the last word: “Demand for broadband in the sky has reached such unprecedented levels around the world that airlines, as well as those in the business aviation and aircraft lessor markets, need to meet passenger expectations or risk losing out to their competitors".