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Timing is everything.

Perhaps it’s no coincidence that the 10th anniversary of the iPhone and the 10th anniversary of the introduction of inflight connectivity, more commonly known as inflight wifi, somewhat overlap.

Technically, the first powerful inflight wifi option, Connexion by Boeing, which was officially launched in April of 2000, pre-dates the smartphone and today’s more commonly available IFC services.

Promising though the Connexion program was, it had to contend with the strains of post-9/11 airline economic reality. The airframe manufacturer abandoned the visionary project in August of 2006.

At the time, Boeing chairman, president and CEO, Jim McNerney said:

“Over the last six years, we have invested substantial time, resources and technology in Connexion by Boeing. Regrettably, the market for this service has not materialized as had been expected.”

Of course, it was only one year later that the iPhone first hit the market. One could wonder what might have been if only Steve Jobs had made a quick call to Seattle.

What we mark as the anniversary of IFC, therefore, is not so much its birthday as its rebirth in 2006. Though the service re-emerged in a much more hospitable digital landscape, it has been touch and go, and is only now properly getting off the ground. And consumer technology habits can take full credit.

As the capabilities of smartphones have improved, our expectations of being connected at all times, able to access an endless stream of information and entertainment in the palm of our hands, has intensified.

Airlines around the world are recognising that passengers want to be connected at all times, including at 40,000 feet, and are finding ways to work around the costs of In-Flight Connectivity (IFC) to reap the goodwill and revenue benefits.

inflight wifi

Speaking at the Aviation Festival in London last week, JetBlue CIO, Eash Sundaram, said that the airline’s popular high-speed FlyFi inflight connectivity product has proven extremely popular, boosting the airline’s Net Promoter Score.

“The philosophy was: when you go home you have wifi, and you go to your hotel and have Wi-Fi, why is the airplane different? When you take a step back, we’ve had access to wifi on our cellphones for a few years, and we think that it’s part of our customers’ everyday experience.”

Sundaram said customer feedback on the wifi service onboard has been very positive, and that the demand is high, with as many as 250 devices connected and streaming content on a high-density A321 aircraft.

Since JetBlue seats 200 passengers on their newest, large capacity A321s, that would imply that many passengers connect more than one device at a time.

The airline’s FlyFi product, powered by Viasat, can keep up with that demand.

Of course, JetBlue offers customers FlyFi for free, and not all airlines do that. Some have opted for revenue sharing programs with suppliers which help off-set costs, and others are charging nominal fees which serve more to limit demand on available bandwidth than they do to pay-off the costs of the system.

Those airlines offering free wifi are finding other ways to offset costs, including advertising and brand partnerships. JetBlue established a number of partnerships which, through added content, make its FlyFi more attractive to users, including with Amazon Prime. During his talk at the Aviation Festival, Sundaram said of this deal:

“Our partnership with Amazon has been very successful. We started with content streaming and extended into shopping. I think it’s a great opportunity..it’s not so much about charging but about fining a way to fund [wifi] but keep it as part of the passenger experience.”

Routehappy’s annual report on IFC, published in January of this year, focused on progress over the past ten years. The statistics were promising:

  • 70+ airlines worldwide offer inflight wifi in most regions of the globe, with several large global airlines preparing for full or near full rollouts.
  • 39% of available seat miles (ASM) worldwide now offer at least a chance of wifi
  • US airlines offer at least a chance of wifi on 83% of their ASMs
  • Non-US airlines offer at least a chance of wifi on 28% of their ASMs

Airline IFC news is now moving at such a pace that the figures presented by Routehappy in January can already be revised upward.

For example, Icelandair, Scoot, Virgin America and JetBlue have now equipped 100% of their fleet for IFC, with service availability limited only by coverage area; and more international carriers are offering Wi-Fi services onboard both long-haul and domestic flights.

In the announcement accompanying the annual report, Robert Albert, CEO of Routehappy described progress on IFC as:

“Quite extraordinary considering less than a decade ago it wasn’t even possible. Inflight wifi is no longer just for early adopters — just look at the number of people on your next flight using wifi.”

Adoption is high even in Europe, where IFC is not as common as the US. Norwegian, which was first to offer free wifi on all of its continental flights, has reported very high adoption rates.

In a special report published last year, marking the 5th anniversary of the service, the airline reported that over 19 million passengers had logged in to the service in-flight since 2011, with over 500 terabytes of data consumed. On average, 18,000 passengers log-in to Norwegian’s wifi every day.

While the hurdles for airline IFC installation are lower than they were for the unfortunately timed Connexion by Boeing service, the costs are still significant. While infrastructure for global connectivity is advancing, but coverage areas still vary between suppliers, as do data capacity and data costs.

Routehappy analyst Jason Rabinowitz, believes that the economies of scale are beginning to kick-in. As he tells Tnooz:

“Lower bandwidth and equipment costs are the key to making WiFi more readily available and sustainable for airlines. Costs have been trending down for years and this has enabled dozens of airlines to begin offering wifi across their fleets.”

Related reading:

Inflight wifi tipping point by 2022

Who’s taking off and who’s on the ground in inflight wifi [INFOGRAPHIC]

Tech in Travel Industry




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