Skift Take

The in-flight connectivity market is about to take off in a big way, with airlines queuing up to install next-generation hardware on their planes.

In-flight connectivity has been one of the hottest topics at this week’s Aircraft Interiors Expo (AIX) in Hamburg, Germany. It’s here that companies have showcased the rapid strides being made to help passengers stay connected while on board. 

Common industry wisdom suggests that much of Gen Z, which grew up with cell phones and near 24/7 connectivity, expects to stay online – even at 35,000ft. With this direction of travel all but established, many airlines are working hard to bridge the gap between expectation and reality.

When done right, truly unlimited Wi-Fi connectivity has the potential to become a key differentiator for airlines, but the path to get here hasn’t always been easy.

Refining the Business Model

In-flight internet connectivity has come a long way since it first emerged more than 20 years ago. In 2003, Connexion by Boeing was launched, with Lufthansa and British Airways the first airlines to test it out. Back then, carriers relied on ground stations that would relay signals when flying over land, switching to satellite connectivity when flying oceanic. It was painfully slow.

A primary approach, which is still prevalent today but hasn’t become a ‘must-have’, is the selling of data packages. The problem is passengers don’t always know how much data they will consume on a given flight.

To counter this, and as technology has improved, airlines have used advertising or sponsorship deals to make the Wi-Fi ‘free’. This is often via a partnership with a content streaming service such as Prime Video or Apple TV+. 

More recent Wi-Fi access models offer services such as iMessage and WhatsApp for free but apply flat pricing for full connectivity.

Another key trend to develop in recent years is the availability of free Wi-Fi or messaging tiers, especially for members of an airline’s loyalty program. Delta Air Lines is one of the biggest carriers to offer this option.

At AIX 2024, a critical connectivity question is how to install equipment on board aircraft that can smartly route between Geostationary Equatorial Orbit (GEO) and Low-Earth Orbit (LEO) satellites and provide seamless connectivity at a low latency. 

Qatar Airways, which already provides high-speed connections branded ‘Super Wi-Fi’ on board its aircraft, first partnered with SpaceX’s Starlink business in 2023 to bolster its offering.

With customers lining up, Starlink’s current focus is to obtain the certification required to install its hardware on planes. By the end of 2024, Starlink hopes to provide connectivity on the Boeing 737 and 777, as well as a range of Airbus aircraft. 

At AIX this week, Qatar Airways Group CEO, Badr Mohammed Al-Meer and Mike Nicolls, Vice President of Starlink Engineering at SpaceX, announced that the airline will roll out Starlink connectivity on at least three 777 aircraft in 2024. The entire fleet should be Starlink enabled within the next two years. Passengers can expect Wi-Fi speeds in excess of 500 megabits per second when the service goes live. That’s powerful enough to stream a 4K video in real time.

Speaking in Hamburg, Nick Galano, Director of Sales and Partnerships at Starlink, said there was enough bandwidth for passengers and crew to really make the most of the technology.

All Eyes on Airbus

In 2022, Airbus announced the HBCplus system. This is notable for its ability to connect with different frequency bands known as Ka and Ku. The Airbus offering will offer a line-fit solution that can be installed on planes when they are being assembled.

The idea is that Airbus can select managed service providers (MSPs) who connect to the hardware and supply bandwidth. This move decoupled the lock-in that satellite-receiving terminals previously had with bandwidth providers. When it goes live later this year, an airline will be able to switch service providers without minimal effort, or perhaps configure service providers at an aircraft level, depending on the route. 

Airbus signed up its first MSP, Inmarsat, in 2022 (a company since acquired by Viasat). It later added SES, Panasonic, and Intelsat to the roster of approved providers. At AIX this week, Airbus also signed a memorandum of understanding with tech firm Hughes to bring them on board. 

Airbus HBCplus is due to enter service with the delivery of the A350 to Emirates later this year. The companies have a contract to line-fit 50 Emirates A350 planes and retrofit another 60 A380 double-decker jets. 

The Dubai-based carrier isn’t the only airline in the HBCplus pipeline. Other confirmed customers are Air India (six aircraft), Air Algerie (five aircraft), and Ethiopian Airlines (four aircraft). It was recently announced that Philippine Airlines has also selected HBCplus for the nine A350-1000 planes it ordered last year.

It isn’t just widebody aircraft either. An undisclosed airline has also selected HBCplus for its single-aisle A320 Family aircraft – representing the first commitment for HBCplus integration on a narrowbody plane. 

Other Airline Wi-Fi Developments

Carriers from around the world are investing heavily in Wi-Fi. Here are some of the other important announcements to watch:

  • Japan Airlines has selected Intelsat to provide multi-orbit in-flight connectivity service on more than 20 Boeing 737 Max aircraft. 
  • German leisure carrier Condor Airlines announced at AIX that it will equip 43 upcoming A320 A321neo deliveries with Intelsat’s 2Ku connectivity. 
  • Croatia Airlines has contracted with Panasonic Avionics to offer Ku band connectivity on its 15 new A220s between 2024 and 2027. 
  • Turkish low-cost airline AJet said at AIX it is teaming up with TCI Aircraft Interiors and Hughes to equip 122 jets.
  • Korean Airlines has added 40 Boeing 787s to an existing contract to equip 30 A321neos with Viasat’s IFC solutions. 
  • Turkish Airlines, which already contracted Anuvu to equip its Airconnect system in 2022, has added 100 narrowbody aircraft to its plans.  
  • Royal Jordanian will equip more than 40 aircraft with Viasat while retrofitting its Boeing 787-8 Dreamliner fleet. 

As available speeds and bandwidth increase, while overall costs go down, more airlines will likely bolster their in-flight connectivity. What is deemed an optional extra today, could very soon become a basic expectation among passengers.

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Tags: business travel, loyalty, paxex, starlink, the prompt, wifi

Photo credit: Fast and potentially free onboard connectivity is an emerging industry trend. Ross Parmly/Unsplash / Ross Parmly/Unsplash

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