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Configuring it out

Wifi has become the latest competitive battleground for airlines – but should it be free or paid for, and how much bandwidth is available? Ian Putzger examines the issues to see if they spell the end for seat-back screens

Could flying on Ryanair actually be fun in the not-too-distant future? First, airline boss Michael O’Leary indicated that he wanted to abandon his bruising approach to customers and business partners alike; now the man who was thinking about charging for the use of bathrooms onboard is actually bringing entertainment to passengers in an effort to please them. In January, Ryanair signalled plans to trial inflight entertainment (IFE) and wifi later this year.


Wifi has quickly turned into a major battleground in the quest to attract passengers. In Ryanair’s case, it probably has more to do with the push to court more business travellers, but the option to get connected is spreading like wildfire throughout a host of commercial aircraft. Global aero communications provider Gogo – which by some estimates now commands more than an 80% market share of commercial aircraft fitted with wifi in the United States – proudly announced in late January that its entertainment product, Gogo Vision, had now been installed on over 1,700 commercial aircraft across six major airlines. The company declared that its backlog of installations had swelled to over 1,000 aircraft, and management anticipates a record number of aircraft installations in 2015.


One of the latest low-cost carriers to join the party is WestJet; earlier this year, the airline was expecting the green light from the Canadian authorities for a wifi-based IFE system that offers its passengers satellite internet connectivity, live streaming television, on-demand movies and magazines, plus several other applications.


North American carriers are certainly ahead of the game. In the US, airline passengers can access wifi on 66% of miles flown, against a worldwide average of 24% – according to data from Routehappy. On Southwest Airlines, one of the trailblazers, passengers get to enjoy live TV screening on 19 channels, plus a smorgasbord of recorded TV shows and movies.


European airlines are racing to catch up. Several carriers – including Lufthansa, Air France-KLM and Vueling – are looking to install wifi on shorthaul flights. Low-cost carriers have been in the vanguard there. Norwegian Air Shuttle offers free wifi on most of its Boeing 737s, and airberlin has equipped two of its Airbus A320s with an onboard wifi system to give passengers internet access via their mobile devices, as well as the ability to stream TV programmes, movies and music, with over 180 hours of media content to choose from.


A spokesperson for airberlin reports that acceptance has been good and that the roll-out of wifi will continue. By the end of 2015, management intends to have 25 to 30 aircraft equipped with ‘airberlin connect’.


VLM Airlines is looking to put wifi on its Sukhoi 100 jets but is not going to bother on its turboprops, as management does not think this will be cost-effective. “When you operate a sector of just one hour, business travellers would ideally like to be connected. However, it is not long enough to hurt their business if they are not,” says VLM chief executive officer Arthur White.


When the carrier replaces its Fokker 50s, it will definitely install wifi onto the new aircraft, White says. “I think on any new fleet, wifi is essential,” he reflects.


Global Eagle Entertainment (GEE), a leading provider of content, connectivity and digital media solutions to airlines worldwide, announced an agreement with Boeing in January to develop Ku-band satellite connectivity system provisions on new 737 aircraft. This will give airlines the option to request the installation before the aircraft is delivered.


Airline chief financial officers understandably salivate at the prospect of savings associated with taking out the IFE systems installed in the backs of seats, from installation and maintenance costs through to the lower fuel burn due to the reduced weight of the aircraft.


Instead of installing touch screens, WestJet now puts USB/110 volt power outlets in seats. Starting this year, airberlin will deploy a new type of seat on short and mediumhaul routes which offers passengers more leg room, plus a USB connection to connect and charge their mobile devices.


However, there are drawbacks. The demonstration of safety procedures reverses back a few decades, as cabin crew will once again have to stand in the aisles to show passengers how to put on a life jacket, fasten a seat belt and so on – time they could spend more productively on other tasks. Still, it seems a small price to pay for the opportunities that wifi affords.


One relatively modest source of income is from the rental of tablets to passengers who come on board without their own device. WestJet is going down this route, while at airberlin it is still under consideration. Nobody is expecting a phenomenal uptake from this. By WestJet’s estimates, about 75% of its passengers already bring their own devices.


White sees huge potential in the range of functions that can be streamed to passengers’ devices, from movies and games, internet access, communication back to the ground, and also retail. “You could have a big e-inflight magazine connected to your device,” he remarks.


“You have a very captive market. Connectivity allows you to pursue some revenue opportunities that you otherwise would not have,” he adds. >>

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