All images: Greg Verville

APEX TECH took off yesterday in Los Angeles. Speakers from Qatar, United, and Delta presented on NFC technology, what it’s like balancing multiple connectivity providers, and how to provide a better passenger experience through advancements in bag tracking and airport wayfinding. A panel dedicated to the electronics ban addressed short- and long-term solutions, from offering Google’s Chromebook as a loaner device for passengers to implementing biometric pre-checks.

Among the other topics addressed throughout the day were: accessibility of cabin announcements, and disruptive innovations, like next-generation batteries and 5G wireless. Gogo, Panasonic Avionics, Smartsky Networks, ViaSat and Inmarsat each laid out their connectivity roadmaps and five entrepreneurs showcased their creations, which ranged from an artificially intelligent travel-booking employee to an airport mobile commerce platform.

Joe Kiely

Building a Better Airline Passenger Experience, Not Just a Bigger One

“My goal is to be the most boring speaker of the day,” joked Joe Kiely, managing director, Customer Experience and Products, Delta Air Lines. “I work for a company that doesn’t reveal its playbook!” In the leadoff session at APEX TECH, Kiely focused on three themes. The first, “Keep It Simple, Stupid,” referred to relieving stress at pain points in the passenger experience. Bag tracking, security lines and airport wayfinding are but three areas that Delta has addressed. Noting that “Things Will Only Speed Up,” Kiely described the airline’s technology incubator called The Hangar, which helps Delta deploy resources and develop technologies to be more agile. Closing with “Take Care of Your People,” Kiely says that Delta is working to “make sure that our associates have the best tools to take care of our customers.”


Raj Singh

Top Three New Technologies That JetBlue Ventures Is Watching

Raj Singh of JetBlue Technology Ventures says that transport has become a hotspot for disruptive innovation, with conditions ripening for a “tsunami of change.” According to Singh, the core technologies that will act as catalysts to the transport revolution headed our way include next-generation batteries, 5G wireless, composite materials and additive manufacturing. “The first sign [of the changes afoot] is batteries. Next-gen batteries are still not wonderful, but they’re getting much better now,” he said, pointing to the capabilities of home and car charging cells being marketed by Tesla. “Those batteries are now getting to an energy density closer to what you can use in aviation. The incremental improvements we see indicate that it won’t be long.”

Next, Singh explained that instantaneous information exchange, such as is possible with 5G wireless networks, will further drive digital innovation in transport – particularly with regard to autonomy: “It will enable autonomy, because of course autonomous vehicles need to communicate constantly to know where they are.” Last but not least, Singh discussed why JetBlue Technology Ventures is watching the composite materials and additive manufacturing space so closely. The lightness and strength of composites are interesting to aviation for obvious reasons, but the promise of 3-D printing to deliver parts on demand could totally transform MRO supply chains and workflows. “If I’m printing 3-D parts in my hangar, like tray tables, latches, seat covers for the toilet, it allows me to save inventory and have things as I need them,” he said.


Tarek Adbel-HalimThree Connectivity Providers & One Passenger Experience

The in-flight connectivity landscape has changed dramatically since 2008, when United Airlines first implemented the technology. Nine years later, thanks to mergers and product decisions, the airline now has three IFC providers, according to Tarek Abdel-Halim, managing director, Ecommerce at United. With each provider bringing multiple capability sets and multiple challenges, “How do we take all of this this and deliver a seamless connectivity experience?” he asked.

The airline is working to define a “Wi-Fi Score,” by establishing service levels that combine different metrics, a score not just driven by the mere availability of IFC. “It’s a lot less about the pipe, and more about what the capability can deliver to the person in the seat,” explained Abdel-Halim. In spite of the challenges, Abdel-Halim admits that having three providers gives the airline leverage in negotiations. “We need the costs of connectivity to go down, to really unlock the power of being connected, the potential for the passenger, and all of the operational benefits that are talked about but still not delivered.”


Babar RahmanNFC Implementations for Content

In 2018, it’s expected that close to 166 million people will be using the Near Field Communications (NFC) capability built into smartphones. As consumers become familiar with using apps such as Apple Pay and Samsung Pay, there’s potential for NFC to enhance the passenger experience. “This is something we’ve been looking at very closely over the past two years,” said Babar Rahman, head of Global sponsorships, CSR and In-Flight Entertainment/Connectivity, Qatar Airways. “A seamless journey – that’s what passengers want to have, and digitization and technology will enable this.”

Beyond generating additional onboard ancillary revenues using NFC-enabled mobile wallets, Rahman described other potential uses of NFC, including integration with in-flight entertainment systems. Qatar’s Oryx One app will allow passengers to create content playlists before a flight, and once on board, “You just tap your phone on your seat, and that’s it,” explained Rahman. Qatar is one of the first airlines to implement this type of NFC technology, according to Rahman, and it will be rolled out in concert with the introduction of the airline’s new QSuite business-class product.



Electronics Ban Solutions Workshop 

APEX CEO Joe Leader, Google’s Max Coppin, JetBlue Ventures’ Raj Singh and Qatar Airways’ Babar Rahman made up the panel that addressed the impact of the in-flight electronics ban and shared ideas and progress on short- and long-term solutions.

Joe Leader put forward four possible solutions:

  • Better, more widespread chemical “sniffing” facilities at airports
  • Turn-on stress tests (stress device to see full active battery)
  • Biometric options, such as facial recognition and pre-checks
  • The use of trusted platform modules (TPM) to test machines

Max Coppin from Google pitched the Chromebook as the perfect loaner device for airlines to offer passengers who are stripped of their personal machines, pointing to a successful and long-running “grab and go” laptop program already in place internally at Google as evidence that the concept works. The machines have management features and productivity tools that support offline work and they can be quickly configured to not store user data after a session ends. Google says it is in advanced talks with airlines and industry incumbents to perfect logistics and security protocols for this effort.

Asked where he thought the electronics ban might go, Raj Singh from JetBlue Ventures was very candid: “It’s difficult to predict what happens next because I personally don’t understand why the laptop ban exists. I’m sure there’s a sensible reason but nobody’s explained it to us.” Babar Rahman of Qatar Airways discussed how his airline reacted and adapted to the ban from an operational standpoint.


Peter Lemme

Cabin Announcements Task Force

“You’re on board. Put yourself in the shoes of an individual who can’t hear very well,” requested Peter Lemme. “I’m going to tell you all sorts of interesting things, but you’re not going to hear a single thing I say, because you can’t hear.” Lemme is chairman of the Cabin Announcements Task Force (CATF), which is focused on creating standards for the text translation of in-flight announcements. Departure delay and safety information, food specials and even flight attendant jokes are included in the wide range of announcements that should be available to all passengers, including those wh0 are deaf and hard-of-hearing.

The CATF will provide a report to the US Department of Transportation’s ACCESS advisory committee by November 2017. Included in the report will be recommendations for the implementation of speech to text translation of pre-recorded announcements, ground transmitted information, such as gate assignments for connecting information, and ad hoc announcements from flight attendants and flight crew. The task force will also identify opportunities and challenges in establishing a standard interface between aircraft networks and passenger-owned devices to enable interactive capability such as calling or messaging with a flight attendant.


Peter LemmeKu/Ka-Band Satellite Standards

There’s little doubt that passenger demand for high-speed in-flight connectivity (IFC) is ever-increasing, and may have become insatiable. Airlines are rapidly equipping their fleets with IFC gear, and one key component is the antenna system sitting on top of the fuselage. Although ARINC standards exist for the design, location and installation of these components, current installations haven’t necessarily followed the standards. This can limit the airline’s ability to upgrade the antenna, or even change IFC providers.

Peter Lemme, chairman of the Airlines Electronic Engineering Committee (AEEC) Ku/Ka-band satcom subcommittee, reviewed the work being done on ARINC standard 792. This update to ARINC 791 defines emerging Ku-band and Ka-band Satcom components, including new antenna technologies, and smaller/simpler components and installation methods. The 792 standard is intended to be compatible with the provisions in 791, along with being fault-tolerant and designed for easy upgrade or replacement of the antenna, explained Lemme. A mature draft of the standard is expected to be available by September.


Future Satellite Connectivity & Deployment Roadmaps

Gogo – Blane Boynton, Vice-President of Product Management

  • Gogo reports good performance with new 2Ku modem (we reported the same when testing it)
  • Has demonstrated speeds to aircraft around 100 mbps
  • Has demonstrated 15 mbps+ per passenger
  • Now claims coverage of 98%+ of global flight hours
  • Now claims 98%+ service availability
  • Will maintain relations with exciting satellite operators and will explore “novel” constellations.

Panasonic  – Tom Eskola, Senior Director of Connectivity Product Management

Generation 1 (2009-2016)

  • Wide-beam network
  • 22 satellites, 27 beams, 1000+ aircraft
  • up to 12 mbps to aircraft

Generation 2 (2016-2018)

  • Wide-beam + HTS
  • 15 satellites, 60 beams, 2000+ aircraft
  • Up to 80 mbps to aircraft

Generation 2 (TBD)

Wide-beam + HTS + XTS + Extended HTS

  • 18 satellites, 150 beams, 4000+ aircraft
  • Up to 250 mbps to aircraft

Beyond (TBD)

  • Gen 4 and 5 XTS being planned for 

SmartSky Networks – Ryan Stone, President

  • SmartSky positioning as compliment to satellite in hybrid configuration
  • Dedicated beam to each aircraft = consistency of service
  • 20,000 beams will cover continental US
  • future hardware upgrades will be simple
  • system should cost less than $100K for hardware
  • forward link speed will be comparable to high-speed satellites


  • Delivering global, multi-Tbps coverage
  • 2011: ViaSat 1 launched, domestic US (150 gbps)
  • 2017: ViaSat-2 scheduled for launch North Am/South AM (450 gbps)
  • 2019: ViaSat-3 schedules to be launched, global (3575 gbps)
  • Speed and economics drive customer satisfaction
  • Admits harder to do return link than forward link, says ViaSat 2 and 3 will keep pace with demand on return link”

Inmarsat – Christine Lawson, Director of Business Aviation

  • Strategy is to provide global coverage, 100% of every major routes you have
  • 4th GX satellite recently launched is an “in orbit spare”
  • 5th satellite ordered and will be supporting global coverage with regional depth.
  • S-band integrates 4G LTE ATG network standing up in Europe – ready second half 2017
  • Moving to new modem technology in the next year
  • 2019: new VHTS Ka-band satellite for EU, ME and Indian sub-continent
  • 2020-23: launch two Inmarsat 6 V-HTS satellites


What’s Next? Focus on Innovation

In the final session of Tuesday’s APEX TECH conference in Los Angeles, a group of five entrepreneurs were invited to showcase their creations in eight-minute, high-powered presentations. JetBlue Technology Ventures and El Al’s Cockpit recommended these innovators, who are sure to have an impact on the travel and hospitality sectors.

YieldBoost from Volantio is a way for airlines to optimize revenue by identifying flights that have spillage, spoilage and oversell danger. The software can dynamically rebalance flights, by sending offers for alternate flights directly to passengers. YieldBoost can reduce call center volumes, is fully controlled by the airline, and “puts the choice in the hands of the customers,” explained CEO Azim Barodawala.

Claire is artificially intelligent. “In fact, the middle two letters of her name are ‘AI’,” noted 30SecondsToFly CEO Felicia Schneiderhan. The company’s technology, called Claire, fills a gap in the business travel market, where employees either make their own online arrangements, or travel is handled by an in-house department. Claire interacts with the traveler in natural language chat, and can provide personalized travel solutions that meet both the individual’s profile, and the company’s travel policies.

“Grab is a very simple concept. We are bringing mobile commerce to an industry that has stubbornly resisted mobile commerce despite a tidal wave of investment and success in mobile commerce. That industry is airport food and beverage, and airport retail business,” said Grab CEO Mark Bergsrud. The platform is now in 18 airports, and will be launching in Europe this summer. “When we do this right, everybody wins,” said Bergsrud.

Every city has unique transportation options for arriving or departing passengers. Mozio works to enable bookings across all modes of transportation, globally. The company has grown rapidly since its 2012 launch, with coverage extending across 2,500 airports today. “We’re looking to take your customers from waiting in lines, to the places they want to go,” said Emre Mangir, COO and head of Partnerships for Mozio.

A fully interactive e-mail is the key to giving passengers the opportunity to review their upcoming itinerary, upgrade seats or purchase in-flight food and services, according to Shi Li, CEO of SeatAssignMate (SAM). Li explained that SAM is plug and play with easy implementation, and is much cheaper than developing an app. El Al is already using SAM, and there are “five airlines in the funnel, and 20 travel agencies,” said Li.