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Bring it ON

Cost-effective trans-border inflight connectivity has been a challenge, particularly for European airlines, but that could all be about to change. Keith Mwanalushi speaks to Inmarsat about their EAN solution

The conclusion from the third annual global Inflight Connectivity Survey, published in July by Inmarsat and market research firm GfK Global, says inflight broadband is changing the airline industry and revolutionising passengers’ expectations of the onboard experience.


The survey reflects the responses of 9,000 airline passengers from 18 countries across Europe, the Middle East, the Asia-Pacific, North America and Latin America, and is the largest global passenger survey of its kind.


It reveals that overwhelmingly, passengers now expect the same levels of connectivity and access to online services when they are at 30,000 feet as they receive on the ground. 60% of all passengers are reported to have said inflight wifi is now a necessity rather than a luxury. The majority (61%) of global passengers who have experienced high quality inflight wifi rate it higher on their list of priorities than inflight entertainment when choosing an airline.


As such, today’s airlines seem to be in a mad rush to install connectivity in the cabin. Nearly half of respondents (44%) in the Inmarsat report said they would stop using their preferred airline within the next year if it did not offer connectivity enabling them to stream or browse online without interruption.


Of course, there is nothing new about offering onboard internet, with several airlines around the world having offered this service for many years, but as Ryanair explained to Low Cost & Regional Airline Business back in our January 2016 issue, the airline was waiting on the right technology to facilitate a low cost entry point so that it was affordable for passengers. 


The problem is that no system existed which allowed for trans-border wifi at a suitably low cost, particularly to attract the majority of European Low Cost Carriers (LCCs) like Ryanair. Many of the connectivity solutions available were expensive and ran at unreliably slow speeds. However, it is considerably more straightforward for airlines offering flights with wifi in the United States, given they do not cross international airspace or borders and therefore do not need to switch wifi provider mid-flight. A European standard wifi system would help improve coverage. 


In response, earlier this year, Inmarsat announced its European Aviation Network (EAN) solution to provide high speed in-flight broadband, and in March the company signed up the International Airlines Group (IAG) as their launch customer. IAG plans to equip in excess of 300 aircraft with EAN and aims to have 90% of its short haul fleet fitted by early 2019.


EAN allows European passengers to use their personal devices for internet browsing, video streaming, gaming, and other online services. The company believes it will be unmatched in its high capacity, low-latency performance. EAN’s robust and ultra-compact technology makes it uniquely qualified for European airspace, where aircraft size, flight density, and frequent aircraft manoeuvring are challenging to broadband satellite-only systems. 


EAN is the first solution in the world to integrate connectivity from a satellite, operated by Inmarsat, and a complementary LTE (Long Term Evolution) based ground network, operated by Deutsche Telekom.


“EAN is an integrated network combining satellite and ground towers to provide robust high-speed internet to aircraft in the EU, Norway and Switzerland,” says Frederik van Essen, Senior Vice President Business Development and Strategy, Inmarsat Aviation. 


Europe has the densest and busiest airspace in the world, with major hubs just a few hundred kilometres apart. As a result, many aircraft are competing for internet bandwidth at the same time, as well as manoeuvring to comply with Air Traffic Control requests. “EAN is designed to deal with the problems that traditional satellite-based solutions face in this environment. EAN will not only enhance passengers’ inflight experience, but will also allow airlines to utilise the benefits of high-speed broadband to improve the operational efficiency of their aircraft flying these busy routes, boosting the competitive position of the European aviation industry,” he says. >>

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