The satellite industry is bullish on the In-Flight Connectivity (IFC) market. While aviation has had a tough time since the COVID-19 pandemic started, there are high hopes for a return to normal. As more people are vaccinated, the market is starting to recover in some areas as people start to fly again, both for business and pleasure. Airlines both big and small have decisions to make about the connectivity experience they will provide guests as passengers return to flight.
One such airline is Oman Air. While Oman Air may not be the size of Emirates or Qatar Airways in the Middle East, the airline with a fleet of around 50 aircraft, makes for an interesting case study in terms of IFC. Alia Al Qalam Al Yafie, Inflight Entertainment and Connectivity manager at Oman Air talked with Via Satellite about what is next for the airline and how it views the latest satellite technology.
Al Yafie talks of the importance of standards when it comes to connectivity. She is clear that airlines need access to more bandwidth, and a reliable service, speeds, and beams that are targeted at their routes. When there are full flights, Oman Air needs to be able to provide a full connectivity service to all passengers that works seamlessly. She wants to be able to give passengers the same reassurance that standards in terrestrial service offer.
“When at home, you have a 5G service, you know it will offer this speed, this coverage. You have all the information on the service. Passengers need to have the same reassurance when they are taking flights, the same way they do at home,” she says. “As airlines, we need to know what we are marketing to our customers is true. I think there should be a change in perspective, and more focus on the standards and a reliable service and on clear models, rather than theoretical explanations about satellites.”
It seems one of the major issues is confidence in satellite technology. Al Yafie points to the fact there are still instances when satellite technology can make things difficult. Oman Air does a lot of short haul flights over the Indian subcontinent, where there is no satellite coverage. This presents a challenge for the passenger connectivity experience.
Al Yafie adds, “If most of my flights are flying to a continent where there is no coverage because there are challenges for the satellite operator to ensure there is a full global coverage, or there is an agreement in a specific area, how will this encourage airlines to consider such investments? This is a very real challenge we have faced. I think there is a big role for satellite operators and other stakeholders to work together here.”
She also admits that redundancy is also highly important. She points to the fact that if airlines such as Oman Air are investing in satellite IFC services, it needs to offer strong redundancy. It is important for Oman Air to ensure that its customers get the service as expected to enhance their flight experience.
Satellite end users can sometimes be confused about satellite terminology, and airlines are no exception. Al Yafie is open about this issue, and says that Oman Air gets confused about the terminology, and the differences between Low-Earth Orbit (LEO), Medium-Earth Orbit (MEO), and Geostationary Orbit (GEO) are not always well explained.
“If you look at LEO, we have to look at the coverage. What are the downsides of GEO? We know MEO are smaller satellites. We know LEOs are meant to be smaller and cheaper satellites. What is the coverage? We expect satellite operators to know exactly what our demands are. So, whether it is bandwidth, speed, global coverage, beam coverage, etc. We need a commitment to have these services provided in a cost-effective and reliable way,” she says.
Vertical Integration in the Value Chain
Last year, we saw a major piece of news in this sector with Intelsat acquiring the Commercial Aviation segment of Gogo, which hinted at more consolidation and vertical integration within this particular sector. Al Yafie points to an interview she read with the CCO of Intelsat, Samer Halawi, and how he touched many important points that she could relate to from her perspective. Halawi said that service providers are struggling financially, and at the same time, airlines are not getting what they need in terms of quality and return on investment. This “is absolutely right,” Al Yafie says.
“I think having the Gogo experience with Intelsat under one umbrella will bring enhancements to the service. It could reshape the connectivity market. It could increase the demands for more bandwidth, reliable coverage, and low cost,” she says. “If the service costs are still high, it won’t be attractive to the passengers. We need to lower the costs to make the service more attractive. When this happens, it will enhance the connectivity sector and encourage airlines to invest more in connectivity in the future.”
Al Yafie believes this is an example of a very successful integration and we will be interested to see the outcome in the future. “We want to see how they will enhance the market and how they will provide better services to airlines,” she adds.
Al Yafie believes innovation is coming in the future in the IFC arena, although she believes airlines across the world will need to recover from the pandemic. The airlines and the entire ecosystem have been in turmoil and virtually every airline has been badly impacted. She thinks digitalization programs will be a key factor in the innovation that the recovery will bring.
“I would like to see one application from the airline, where as a guest I sign in, load my content, customize my content. I can download my Netflix content. I can check my luggage. We have been talking a lot about the Bring Your Own Device [BYOD] technology, which is really a beautiful technology. For example, we talked about Millennials and Generation Z and how they embrace technology. But, even people from the ‘old school’ are more connected to our laptops, our iPhone, our iPads, we would like to use them all the time. BYOD is a very good tool,” she says.
Passengers are demanding wireless services on flights. This in turn will encourage many airlines to move potentially away from the classic Audio Video on Demand (AVOD) system to offer a new cutting edge and innovative connectivity solutions, according to Al Yafie. She believes the AVOD system is heavyweight, costly in maintenance, and has a lot of challenges when integrating it with another system.
“Complementing connectivity with a seat-centric technology or a wireless technology or bringing new technologies on board will enable airlines to enhance their efficiency and keep their passengers more engaged. At the same time, it is also a potential source of revenue,” she adds.
However, for this to happen, airlines need to make sure all of the compatibility and security issues are taken care of. “As airlines we are very thrilled with innovation. So, when we talk new innovative apps with satellite service providers or IFE providers, we get very excited. Theoretically everything seems perfect. But, down the line we get to see more challenges and issues,” she says.
An Inflection Point for IFC
It is clear many airlines are at an inflection point with their IFC strategies, and these strategies may be more important than ever after the events of recent months. Al Yafie believes if airlines invest in connectivity, they expect to have some return on investment. She maintains that the coverage needs to be global; she does not want to see service interruptions when passengers are flying.
“If it is a long-haul flight, there needs to be smooth satellite transitions. The service needs to continue and can’t disconnect because of a lack of agreements with certain countries/authorities. Innovative airlines always like to be different. They are always considering ROI. They are considering to have something new. We fly worldwide. We want enhanced, seamless passenger experiences,” she says.
Al Yafie talks about the fact that airlines like Oman Air have been pushing the airline Original Equipment Manufacturers (OEMs) like Boeing or Airbus to recognize the improvement of any service should not rely on the IFE supplier or the satellite service provider alone. She believes it is a joint responsibility of all stakeholders. She talks about how the OEMs certify them on their platform. She talks of the satellite service provider as a key partner as they have the bandwidth and coverage. They know about the hardware.
“We want more than theoretical assurances,” she says. “I want to know that if I have this satellite, with this hardware, with this service provider, it guarantees me a great level of service. As an airline, I don’t mind starting slow. Airlines want to have everything all at once, but I think of things in phases. We can go gradually, start with a platform or a particular model. After that, you can add to the service, for example offer a targeted beam, more bandwidth and more coverage. But it can happen in phases rather than a full suite once and for all.”
Al Yafie believes the industry needs to adopt a more thoughtful approach to bringing these services to airlines. She talks about when airlines get offered a full range of services in this arena, they often encounter all manner of software and hardware issues, that it can take a long time to improve the service.
“For now, we see the classic IFE has more market share than connectivity,” she says. “But, I think it will overcome it in the years to come with BYOD, seat centric and wireless. Guests want to choose their own devices and content. My kids want new technologies like VR and AR. They want to see the movie and be in the movie. These are the new enhancements we could see happen. Connectivity will have a bigger market in the future assuming the service is reliable, and redundancy is good and the price has come down.” VS