A connectivity conundrum

by Mary Kirby, Kirby Media Group

In-flight connectivity plays a very big part in the passenger experience. But there’s a connectivity conundrum caused by passenger expectations surpassing what’s generally feasible. 

Where we are

The playing field is crowded and getting more so. Air-to-ground, L-band satellite, Ku-band satellite and regional Ka-band connectivity are available via multiple providers. On top of these, hybrid solutions and global Ka are coming down the pike.

But while deployment is escalating, revenue isn’t. That’s because only roughly 7% of passengers are currently willing to pay for connectivity on average. There are some exceptions, however. High-traffic transcontinental routes see upward of 30% adoption; certain long-haul international flights are seeing take rates in the double digits; and, obviously, free Wi-Fi adoption rates are higher still.

But that’s the problem. Free connectivity often equates to degradation in service. The result is that passengers are beyond frustrated.

What’s more, today’s passengers are mobile, social and increasingly vocal about their experience, and they’re taking to social media to name and shame the airlines and providers they feel are giving them lousy service.

Impact on bookings

Some passengers can’t afford to be disconnected for long-haul flights – even if the service is imperfect. I fly coach, mainly, unless a nice airline takes pity on me and offers an upgrade.

As a ‘budget business traveler,’ I expect to get work done in-flight. Connectivity is essential to me. And it’s increasingly essential to many others, who, like me, can’t afford to be disconnected just because they’re on an airplane.

More and more passengers are making their bookings based on flights that provide in-flight connectivity. The problem is, they don’t always know if connectivity is available.

Services like SeatGuru and RouteHappy are stepping up and filling the gap. But airlines should be setting the expectations for their passengers, letting them know exactly what to expect ahead of time.


Managing expectations is also crucial. Passengers want the same bandwidth in the air that they enjoy at home. This is a problem because, even though most in-flight connectivity systems can’t support the streaming of Netflix or HBO, the ability or inability to do so could well become the measure by which these systems are judged.

Because it’s nearly impossible to offer passengers the speeds necessary to enjoy movies and streaming music, airlines are augmenting connectivity with wireless IFE, which allows them to stream content to their own devices, and pulls eyeballs away from the precious connectivity pipe.

What to do?

Wireless IFE allows airlines to simulate a Netflix-type experience onboard without using bandwidth. Hollywood has traditionally disallowed new releases to be streamed to consumer devices, but we’re already seeing that window shrink.

Hollywood is under more pressure to relent; eventually it will have to. This will allow airlines to provide more personally-tailored entertainment options to their passengers.

As airlines and passengers embrace these changes, the traditional IFE model will have to change. Most wide-body aircraft carry embedded inflight entertainment, but we are seeing some brave carriers forego it.

Philippine Airlines is offering a true wireless cabin on its Airbus A330 wide-bodies. With mobile and Wi-Fi services offered by OnAir and the OnAir Play wireless IFE solution, they are presenting a real test case for the industry.

The network I write for is paying very close attention – will the success of this program ultimately prompt other legacy carriers to follow suit?

It’s quite logical the answer will be ‘Yes’.

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