In-Flight Connectivity is Here to Stay

By Matthew Towers, Senior Research Director - Communications, IMS Research



Historically, the aerospace market has been something of a niche, with most electronics confined to cockpit and flight operations functions, and addressed by specialist electronics manufacturers. In recent years, electronics content has started to mushroom. At first this was driven by growing demand for personal "in-seat" entertainment systems. These were introduced initially into premium cabins but have rapidly moved into economy/coach for long haul travel, providing a plethora of entertainment facilities including video, audio, and gaming. The newest generation of systems from leading suppliers, such as Panasonic and Thales, are more advanced, offering bigger and higher quality displays, new functionality, and better reliability. In the newest Boeing and Airbus aircraft, the cost of the in-flight entertainment system can now sometimes exceed the cost of the engines, thus becoming the second biggest hardware expense after the air-frame. Looking ahead, further innovation is on the way that will drive even more electronics into the aerospace market. Connectivity is the current buzz-word in the industry and North American carriers are leading the way when it comes to in-flight Wi-Fi capability. Over 1,000 aircraft are now fitted out with Aircell's Gogo in-flight internet - meaning that approximately one-third of all North American flights offer the ability to go online while in the air. Many more are set to introduce this functionality in the coming years with low-cost carriers Southwest and Jet Blue the latest to announce deals with Row 44 and Viasat respectively. Although in-flight Wi-Fi on North American flights has now become relatively commonplace, this is not the case in other regions. That said, a raft of airlines including Lufthansa, Emirates and Cathay Pacific have recently committed to providing access to the internet during flights in the near future, whilst many of the world's biggest airlines are still to make announcements. However, unlike their US counterparts who are restricted by stringent FCC regulations, airlines operating out of Europe, for example, are able to offer cellular as well as Wi-Fi connectivity on-board their flights. As such, many have partnered with companies able to provide in-flight mobile connectivity such as Aeromobile and OnAir so that their passengers are able to use their mobile phones to text and call in the air. The introduction of connectivity in the air will offer passengers even greater entertainment options whilst in-flight. Activities such as email, SMS messaging, web-surfing, live TV and on-line shopping will all become a reality. There are, however, still quite a number of issues to resolve. These include:

  • Bandwidth - bandwidth into and out of the aircraft is still limited and this will restrict functionality initially.
  • Investment - up-front investment required by the airlines can be large. At a time when the industry as a whole is not very profitable, this is making some airlines think very carefully before committing.
  • Passenger attitudes - it is still unclear how passengers will feel about their close neighbour being able to place and receive cell-phone calls whilst in-flight.
  • Regulations - FCC regulations in the US currently prohibit cell-phone calls in the air whilst over US airspace.
Despite these barriers, it appears that in-flight connectivity is here to stay, and in the longer term will become increasingly sophisticated and widely available. One potential knock-on effect of the move to in-flight connectivity is that it will drive greater demand for in-seat power. Many airlines expect passengers to take advantage of connectivity in the air using their own devices - whether cell-phones, iPods, notebooks, netbooks or tablets like the iPad. Although battery life for many of these products continues to extend, it will still be highly convenient for passengers to have in-seat power provided so that batteries do not become exhausted or too depleted during long flights. One thing seems clear. The days of executives "escaping" unconnected into the air for 10 hours, and enjoying some respite from the pressures of phone and email are numbered. Personally, I will be sorry to see them go!