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Revolution in the air

Critical choices with ‘connected aircraft’

There’s a revolution in the air. Passengers see connectivity as the new ‘in-flight must-have’. At the same time, the industry faces critical choices in embracing ‘connected aircraft’.

Digital natives are coming of age. They’re the ones who’ve never known a world without the Internet, tablets or smartphones. They expect to be connected at all times: on the ground, and in the air.

Even today’s travelers’ expectations have reached the point where they suffer ‘nomophobia’ – the fear of being out of mobile phone contact.

Over 85% of them report feeling frustrated, angry or anxious with no connectivity. And 37% of them carry three mobile devices. Not one, not two, but three: a laptop, a tablet, and a smartphone.

Driving forces

Little wonder OnAir is seeing ever growing interest in its in-flight mobile connectivity services, as airlines across all regions of the globe strive to deploy its onboard services to keep passengers happy and loyal.

But the driving forces for connected aircraft come from myriad operational points of view too. They’re centered not just on the passenger but also on the IT needs of the crew and cockpit, as well as aircraft health and maintenance.

Industry approach

“Addressing those needs, with the secure data handling in the air and on the ground that they demand, means that we must take an industry approach to enabling aircraft connectivity,” explains Greg Ouillon, who heads up the e-Aircraft™ program between SITA and OnAir.

“If it’s not done in a cohesive way, the ensuing mess will last for over the next decade and a half.”

“Some companies may be raising their hands and saying ‘I can do this’, but they’re only addressing one slice of the overall pie – say cockpit or cabin – in isolation. No one apart from SITA and OnAir are addressing it as a whole.”

‘Nose-to-tail' decision

The talk is about ‘Nose-to Tail’ connectivity – achieving the complex process of aircraft ‘e-enablement’ or ‘digitalization’ for the entire aircraft and across the complete fleet.

That means creating new processes that exploit the data capabilities of new generation aircraft from cockpit to cabin, en route and at the airport – in a coherent, secure and cost-effective way.

“It’s about taking a holistic view of the aircraft overall, enabling pilots to make smart decisions, and aircraft maintenance to improve availability, reduce turnaround times and achieve on-time departures,” says Ouillon.

“This is the focus of the SITAONAIR joint e-Aircraft initiative.”

David Stewart, VP of ICF International, agrees. “A key challenge for airlines, equipment suppliers and manufacturers is to take the right approach to e-enablement now.

“That’s because decisions made today and in the next two to three years will determine the infrastructure and supply chain for the 30 to 40 years that connected aircraft will be flying.”  (See ‘An industry-wide e-Aircraft Program’ section below.)

“The industry must take the right approach to e-enablement now. Decisions made in the next two to three years will determine the infrastructure and supply chain for the 30 to 40 years."

David Stewart, VP, ICF International

‘Passenger power’

Back to the passenger perspective, Ouillon adds: “It goes without saying that the gathering momentum of ‘passenger power’ means that in-flight connectivity will be all about delighting passengers with products and applications, as well as with engagement.”

OnAir’s CEO Ian Dawkins agrees. ”Mobile applications in-flight are becoming increasingly important. Engagement and personalization to individual travelers is paramount.”

By 2020, in-flight connectivity will be more universal and personalized. It will remember individual likes and dislikes, just as on-the-ground connectivity does.


OnAir Play is a case in point for personalization. Says Dawkins:  “Only one hour out of 24 on TV is actually live. No one watches live TV anymore.

“Our children go to their computers or tablets and download an episode or a season of episodes and watch it when they feel like. Everything has become ‘on demand,’ and TV is no exception.”

OnAir partnered with an airline in the Philippines to offer OnAir Play, which provides tailored content to passengers, live, in real-time. This includes video on demand, special event coverage, sports, and so on. If a TV show airs on a Tuesday night, it’s available for upload in-flight on Wednesday morning.

IFE Revolution

Dawkins sees it as the start of a revolution that’s going to challenge in-flight entertainment (IFE) suppliers. “The lead time between when new content is released and when it’s available online will disappear,” he says.

“Things like the World Cup or the Olympics – they will be deployed live. But new release movies? New music? They’ll be available on demand. The cost of that will have to be managed.”

‘Crew power’

As the ‘revolution in the air’ takes place, empowering crew is just as much a part of the equation, with many of them embracing tablets to upload information before takeoff and then using it in-flight.

Crew tablet information services today – such as frequent flyer status, special meal request, and connecting flights – remain limited and static, in terms of capabilities and in the number of airlines offering them. They’re also siloed in different equipment.

But ever greater tablet universal connectivity beckons. According to Dawkins: “All tablets of tomorrow will be connected in-flight. They will provide real-time information and passengers will demand it.”

With secure, real-time en-route connectivity comes a host of benefits – for both operations and passenger service. Processing time can be reduced from eight days to one.

Defects notifications, baggage tracking and possibly emergency telemedicine services will all be commonplace from the in-flight tablet.

So will mobile payments, and because purchases happen in real-time – being checked and verified then and there – 5-7% of fraudulent onboard payments can be removed.

“Some companies may be raising their hands and saying ‘I can do this’, but they’re only addressing one slice of the overall pie – say cockpit or cabin – in isolation. SITA and OnAir are addressing it as a whole.”

Gregory Ouillon, Head of e-Aircraft program, SITA

Cockpit revolution

Tablets are revolutionizing the cockpit too.

For both cockpit and cabin the next transformational step is to look to real-time information, to make the data fully interactive and integrated into the back end systems on the ground.

“Only then will they realize the full benefits of connected aircraft, such as far reaching operational benefits in the cockpit, from flight planning to weather updates to aircraft monitoring,” says Ouillon.

“With much better situational awareness, thanks to data from operational control centers or Air Traffic Control, pilots will make smarter decisions about the flight plan. This will be game-changing.”


On the aircraft health and maintenance side, we’ll see major change. New generation aircraft, heavily reliant connectivity for their operation, require significant software updates.

They also generate immense amounts of data that can improve maintenance predictions and on time performance.

By 2023, we’ll see 11,500 connected aircraft. And then it accelerates even more. The parameters these new aircraft need are going to drive technology decisions. But to use data in an effective way, the industry needs to make decisions today.

Critical choices now

“Again it underlines the critical choices to be made for infrastructure, the connectivity of these aircraft to the ground, and the all-important data exchanges,” adds Ouillon.

“It’s important to understand and address the bigger picture. Airlines have multiple aircraft and multiple manufacturers. And those aircraft have multiple engines, as well as multiple systems, IT and suppliers.

“Managing this complexity is a daunting task for the industry. Through its e-Aircraft Program, SITA is demonstrating its community role and adopting a technology agnostic approach to enable the vital data flows in the most efficient, secure and cost-effective way.”

An industry-wide e-aircraft™ program

Aircraft ‘digitalization’ is accelerating. For one thing, there’s the growing ambition among airlines to meet evolving connectivity expectations.

Then there’s the imperative to make the right decisions around data processing and exchange from and to the aircraft. This will revolutionize trend monitoring, trend analysis, predictive maintenance and much more.  

But it also raises vital questions. What are the protocols? How do we share the data? Who owns the data? How do we manage the distribution of the data?

A third driver is new generation aircraft like Boeing 787 and Airbus 350. Being IT-driven, they ‘fly on data’, and they call for big changes in established aircraft processes.


To help airlines, air framers, manufacturers and equipment suppliers with the transformation, SITA and OnAir have jointly created the ‘e-Aircraft Program’ to deliver a ‘Nose-to-Tail’ value proposition for the air transport industry.

Four areas

Created around four services areas – passenger, crew, cockpit, and aircraft health and maintenance – the program marks a first in the industry, as SITA and OnAir take a lead in bridging these fragmented areas, bringing them into a coherent and modular portfolio.

Early Q4 saw a major step with the announcement of OnAir Plug, bringing inflight Internet access for the airline over a secure dedicated wireless network. It enables airlines to optimize in-flight and ground operations, by exchanging real-time data between cabin crews and the ground.


An essential ingredient is neutrality, especially when transferring data from different manufacturers, OEMs and system suppliers, and in deciding who owns the data and how to distribute it.

With a community remit, and a neutral position at the center of the industry, SITA is uniquely positioned to help the industry take the steps. That involves bringing stakeholders together and acting as data broker to avoid tugs of war over ownership.

Look out for our workshops

Decisions must be made now, they have to be right, and they have to be made together.

Already we’ve run one Connected Aircraft workshop in London, a two-day multi-discipline event showing how each of the fragmented service areas – or what we call ‘the pillars of connectivity’ – are being integrated.

Similar workshops are planned for Asia Pacific. Contact

More on the progress of the e-Aircraft Program updates in our next issue.

New media stations - delivering self-service entertainment

You read it here first!

Every day, the airline industry loads up 100,000 kilos of newspapers and magazines. That’s 150 million copies, and there’s no certainty about how many will be read.

Depending on the location, they may be yesterday’s news. Short-haul passengers probably don’t even get offered the ‘luxury’.

Media is a small but costly extra that’s an accepted part of the traveling package. It costs fuel. And it costs to supply it, clear it away, and dispose of it. Languages are limited, as is choice. Media Station is an alternative.

Quick access to media for flights

SITA and strategic partner Orange Business Services have joined forces to produce Media Station, a smart solution able to exploit the fact that 70% of passengers now carry tablets or smartphones.

  • Instead of airlines providing paper content such as newspapers and magazines, a self-service entertainment kiosk station can deliver the same content directly to a passenger’s smart device.
  • Kiosks can be placed in airport lounges and at departure gates. They can support the latest wireless technology, so that passengers can download high-definition movies in a few seconds, just before they board their plane.

Ancillary revenue

The catalog of content available is constantly growing. It includes more than 450 newspapers and magazines, more than 200 films, 50 TV series and, of particular interest to many travelers, over 100 city guides, destination video tours and similar items.

The media station also provides a source of potential ancillary revenues:

  • Airlines may choose to provide every passenger with the option of one newspaper free of charge, with additional content available at a fee.
  • Or they may decide only premium content is charged, such as a movie.

Depending on content-type, an airline could get up to 25 % of the end-user fee. It can also generate more revenue by contracting with advertisement providers for integrated spots.

Airports might choose Media Station to increase their own offer to passengers, integrated with the airport’s own information applications.

Trim costs, save time

Media Station is not going to revolutionize the air transport industry. But it does provide an opportunity to trim costs and save operational time. What’s more, it will provide passengers with a better service while enhancing an airline or airport’s own ancillary revenues.

Kiosk work underway

More work is underway to develop other services for kiosks airside, including not just media but also vouchers for promotion or disruption, duty-free shopping, way-finding and much more.

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