Let’s be frank. For many passengers, flying has lost its sense of adventure. If you’re in economy, in the center row of any large long haul jet, there’s not much romance in the journey.
You’re not going to be distracted by the curve of the horizon or the ships milling below in the oceans, or by the track of a road across plains and mountains. A good book helps. And you may catch a movie you missed at home. But it’s not the most exciting or engaging way of spending a day.
Wouldn’t it be easier if being in the air was no different from being on the ground? If you could speak to friends, swap messages, share pictures, listen to music and watch films of your choice, even keep tabs on work emails and collaborate on documents with work colleagues as you cross continents?
And wouldn’t it make sense for the cabin staff to be able to anticipate passenger dietary and other needs – and know the names of who’s sitting where? And for the cockpit crew to be able to stay in real-time contact with their operations centers, varying the flight plan to optimize comfort and safety?
And for the staff on the ground, and all of the companies whose parts and equipment make the craft fly, to have real-time knowledge of how that massively complex 400-ton triumph of engineering is working?
That’s the reality of nose-to-tail connectivity. It’s creating quite a stir across all parts of the air transport community – and it’s being led by what Ian Dawkins, CEO of SITA OnAir, calls ‘contextual engagement at 30,000 feet’.
“I was on a flight in Asia Pac recently,” he comments. “It was a new aircraft fitted with the latest Wi-Fi and a great in-flight entertainment offering. A neighboring passenger was watching Star Wars on his Samsung.
“I asked him why he chose that rather than the larger screen and the onboard options? He replied he was a frequent traveler and had seen all the movies on offer. So he’d downloaded what he wanted to watch, using the Wi-Fi system.
“That’s what it’s all about: choice. Wi-Fi is not the product. It’s simply the means that passengers increasingly expect to find, in the air as on the ground, so they can choose how they spend their hours in flight.
“They appreciate the opportunity for voice calls – we enabled 14 million connections last year – but people absolutely want data connectivity so they can stay connected through social media and access the entertainment and services they want.”
There’s little doubt that today’s ‘digital omnivores’ want to be online, and they are by far the majority.
We’re all aware that 97% of passengers now carry a personal electronic device on board – and they want it connected, whether they’re senior travelers, families, lifestyle flyers, young explorers or business travelers.
And the more choice there is in devices, the more that usage and expectation of connectivity has grown.
The message has been heard: 66% of airlines say they’ll offer wireless internet and multi-media services on passenger devices by the end of 2018.
At present 28% of airlines offer internet on passenger devices, 23% offer multimedia on passenger devices and 25% offer mobile services such as voice, SMS an so on (2015 SITA Airline IT Trends Survey). So the intent is there and a broad understanding of the benefits is increasingly understood.
But are we thinking broadly and deeply enough about the implications of passengers being connected during their flights – and how it enables the airline-passenger touch points to be maintained and fostered?
There are two core elements: passenger satisfaction and extra revenue opportunities.
Connectivity on the ground is already a hot topic, with numerous examples of airlines developing apps that enable real-time interactivity with passengers, guiding them through the flight process, way-finding for them, offering options for relaxation, retail therapy, food and drink, parking and so forth.
In the connected cabin, the process continues during the flight. Passengers can occupy themselves in their own digital world, whether on Facebook, downloading favorite movies, catching up on ‘must-see’ TV series, reading an e-book, writing a business report, listening to their favorite music, learning about their destination and checking through onward travel options.
The airline can provide live information on expected arrival times, links to taxis, hotels and restaurants, guidance on rapid baggage retrieval at the destination. And with application programming interfaces (API) now freely available through developer.aero for innovation of smartphone apps, the options are limited only by the imagination.
The use of connected CrewTablets is also a major boost to interaction between passengers and crew. Passenger dietary requests are more easily managed, with regular flyers profiles available to crew, enabling a more personalized service.
And with tablets linked to existing IFE systems, the crew can send messages relating to the flight, or passengers can send messages to the crew asking for a drink, or a blanket, or any other question. It makes for a far more personalized and intimate relationship between the crew and the passengers.
Additional revenue opportunities can also be driven through connectivity. Maintaining the touch point with the passenger before, during and after the flight through Wi-Fi enabled smartphone and tablet apps facilitates access to ancillary services and partner options, such as hotels, car hire, even concierge services for theatre and concert bookings.
Once connected, passengers have extensive online browsing time available to buy goods sourced by the airline, and real-time credit card authorization makes crew retail a faster, smoother option.
Goods can be selected through online apps, paid for online or via the crew, and collected at the destination. Space and weight are no longer restrictions for retail sales during the flight.
There’s a third element, which links to the operational aspects of nose-to-tail connectivity – and that’s the opportunities generated for enhanced operations thanks to the massive volumes of data that are generated through a connected aircraft.
The benefits are well-rehearsed and self-evident in respect of engine data and aircraft performance. They include enabling optimization of flight operations and air traffic control, improved flight safety and passenger comfort (for example, by avoiding unexpected bad weather), and enabling constant flight tracking and black box data streaming.
“As the opportunities and their answers evolve further, they need always to be guided by a simple set of principles,” says Dawkins.
“We all want to narrow the gaps in the overall passenger experience, to provide a continuum between the traveler and the airline extending from the decision to book a flight, through the flight itself, and after the flight has ended.
“To do that in the aircraft, first we need to provide Wi-Fi – preferably free to use . We need to ensure that services or applications available to the passenger are useful, desirable and useable. At SITA OnAir, our role is to make that findable, credible and valuable.”