With few exceptions, deployment of in-flight digital applications has so far failed to match the promise and intent which surrounds them. Fault for this cannot really be placed on either vendors or airlines. On the one hand vendors are bringing more In-Flight Connectivity (IFC) solutions to market than ever before, but on the other hand, airlines have rightly prioritized deploying software and platforms that enhance lucrative and influential passenger touchpoints on the ground. For many airlines, the In-Flight Connectivity conversation has failed to move much beyond serving up reliable internet access to passengers. Cockpit and cabin applications that are empowered via real-time connectivity can be considered a nice to have or a priority of tomorrow. However, COVID-19 has brought some much-needed impetus to the e-enablement story.
Readers are acutely aware that airlines from around the world are seeking financial aid to survive what has become an unprecedented scenario with the COVID-19 pandemic. For many, national governments have come to the rescue, recognizing the need to prop up a sector which will play a pivotal role in any eventual recovery. But there is no such thing as a free lunch and publicly funded bailouts have come with terms designed to reign in spending and pin airlines to political agendas.
Nowhere is this more evident than in Europe. Air France-KLM, for example, was asked to reduce the frequency of shorter domestic services in an apparent effort by the government to stimulate demand for the local rail network. Austrian Airlines is being tasked with increasing fuel efficiency by 1.5 percent annually and cutting emissions by 30 percent from 2005 levels. Meanwhile, Scandinavian Airlines (SAS) has been given emission reduction targets in line with the Paris Agreement. In Europe, flight operations efficiency will be fast-tracked up airlines’ lists of priorities as they adhere to bailout terms and look to improve the bottom line.
This streamlining process is unlikely to be isolated to just the cockpit either as COVID-19 has severely disrupted operations in the cabin too. Airlines are now rolling out solutions and processes that cater to the new ceiling for cabin hygiene and this will undoubtedly lead to a more contactless cabin experience with technology at the core.
As a result, cockpit and cabin applications that can enhance operational performance, such as telemedicine, route optimization, retail and those on cabin crew devices, are set to become strategically important in the years ahead. This comes at a good time, partly because IFC vendors, such as Viasat, Inmarsat, and SITAONAIR have put more effort into stockpiling, or at least facilitating, real-time applications in the last two to three years to supplement core connectivity packages. But also, because new airline wins are likely to become increasingly rare over the next two to three years as fleet growth is capped and airline investment on nonessential spending is cut.
In 2019, Valour Consultancy conducted a survey of commercial airlines on the topic of digital applications which showed adoption of telemedicine and real-time payment verification between 10-20 percent and deployment of connected cabin devices at 35 percent. Yet intent to adopt all three was well above these figures, demonstrating the potential addressable market on offer, even before COVID-19 and its many implications.
It is our opinion that now is the ideal time for IFC service providers to really focus on existing customers and provide alternate ways to justify the continued spend on connectivity at a time when passenger load, and thus revenue from passenger IFC sessions, looks like it will remain low for years rather than months. Whilst digital applications are unlikely to offset the loss in passenger revenue, effective use and leveraging real-time connectivity can deliver operational savings and an uplift passenger sentiment in a period where every little bit helps. VS
Daniel Welch is co-founder and senior research consultant at Valour Consultancy. He is responsible for Valour’s IFEC business, producing annual syndicated reports on In-Flight Connectivity, running the quarterly IFC tracker, and custom projects for companies across the world at various levels of the IFC value chain.