Image: Felipe Vargas

APEX Insight: How do airlines create a consistent Wi-Fi experience across different aircraft with different connectivity providers?

Delivering a consistent in-flight Internet experience is challenging on the best of days. And with more carriers offering connectivity and more providers to choose from, a mixed approach across an airline’s fleet is common, if not inevitable. Addressing the many issues passengers face concerning different connectivity providers is important, especially as in-flight Wi-Fi transitions from a luxury amenity to an expected necessity on board.

Delivering on that promise largely depends on the portal experience. As the content gateway, the connection portal sets the stage for the entire user session. Passenger satisfaction also relies on service cost and packaging, as well as on balancing the demand for both superior and consistent performance, which can at times be at odds.

The Way to Wi-Fi

First-generation portals were controlled by the connectivity provider, not the airline, making them easy to maintain, if not particularly elegant. As a passenger, you were consuming a Gogo product, not a Delta Air Lines or United Airlines one. The past couple of years have seen a significant evolution in the way portals are designed, allowing a single interface to better accommodate multiple providers.

Adding airline branding to the portal was a major development that came with second-generation portals. Passengers could now consume the connectivity product as a customer of the airline – or at least it looked that way. Logging in with airline loyalty program credentials and paying with miles or a program-stored credit card became possible in some cases, but different providers still presented slightly different portals, albeit all with a unified color scheme. This second-generation style is cohesive, but stops short
of delivering a truly unified experience.

“We want things to be as seamless as possible. As long as it navigates and looks the same, most passengers can work with that.” — David Coiley, Inmarsat

Some airlines continue to work on delivering this mostly consistent level of service, working toward the goal of an entirely consistent user experience. Lufthansa Group recently added Inmarsat Global Xpress to its connectivity portfolio, which already included Panasonic Avionics’ eXConnect service. During the implementation process, Lufthansa was clear about one requirement: the need for a single-user experience. Inmarsat worked with Deutsche Telekom on FlyNet, Lufthansa’s in-flight connectivity service, to deliver on that promise. As David Coiley, Inmarsat’s vice-president of Aviation, explains, “It is still FlyNet. There are consistencies of look and feel so that passengers don’t get confused. We want things to be as seamless as possible. As long as it navigates and looks the same, most passengers can work with that.”

Other airlines do manage to deliver an entirely consistent portal experience across multiple service providers. Emirates, for example, which uses both Inmarsat’s SwiftBroadband and Panasonic’s eXConnect across its fleet, offers an identical portal and pricing structure no matter the provider. The same goes for Southwest Airlines, which is flying with eXConnect and Global Eagle’s Airconnect. From a customer perspective, this is a more unified solution, though there may still be room for improvement.

Pricing Pain Points

Is connectivity priced by duration or consumption volume? The answer is both – a reality that can lead to confusion and frustration among customers.

Megabyte package pricing is frowned upon by consumers, mostly because converting the package size numbers to expected usage is incredibly difficult. Passengers can end up disappointed, either because the package ran out too quickly or because they overpaid for an allowance they didn’t end up using. A recent panel discussion at Aviation Festival 2017 in London saw multiple vendors agree that package pricing is undesirable to most, but none could predict when it would be withdrawn from the market. 

Multi-flight Wi-Fi passes are a compelling option, as they offer passengers easier business expense report processing and usually a discount on the overall service. However, delivering a pass that is compatible with multiple providers and portals is no easy task. United implemented connectivity services from ViaSat, Gogo and Panasonic – and three different portal experiences – a few years ago, but the carrier only recently tested a monthly subscription package for its service; the offering still isn’t available.

Another challenge for airlines with multiple connectivity vendors is handling promotions. Offering free Wi-Fi to top-tier elites is a popular benefit, for example, but isn’t always easy to deliver. When Virgin America added ViaSat to its connectivity portfolio, which already included Gogo, it had to develop a workaround using promo codes to make sure its elite members continued to receive free Wi-Fi on different aircraft. It works, but not without extra effort.

Southwest and Emirates became dual-source providers relatively recently and seem to have learned from the challenges previously faced by others. While Southwest offers a daily flat rate of $8 and Emirates provides the first 20 MB of data for free followed by different options based on membership and data volume, both airlines have committed to a single rate across their multiple providers.

Single- or Multi-Speed Connectivity?

Perhaps the hardest factor to control is performance. Even a single provider will deliver different speeds, given the multiple technologies it employs. Add in multiple providers, and things get complicated quickly.

One approach is to have systems perform at the consistent speeds of the lowest common denominator. That’s good for consistency, but not so great for the overall passenger experience. United tried this on its Thales/ViaSat Ka-band-powered single-aisle fleet, but eventually chose to remove the speed controls on its system, delivering faster performance whenever possible. Adding these artificial caps, it turns out, is rarely beneficial to passengers.

Delta currently offers two flavors of Gogo connectivity on board: Ku and 2Ku, but explicitly markets flights on 2Ku-fitted airplanes as offering higher-speed Internet. Singling out 2Ku may raise passenger expectations, but it also ensures the carrier is delivering a greater performance level versus that provided by Ku or its earlier ATG4 offering.

Wi-Fi With No Beginning or End

Connectivity and service providers are working toward a truly integrated connectivity platform that benefits passengers, airlines and providers. David Fox, vice-president of Inflight Services and Connectivity at Deutsche Telekom, recently described his company’s efforts on that front: “For the passenger, it is all about making things easier. We want to seamlessly merge connectivity into the airline proposition.” By absorbing the Wi-Fi portal into its own app, through Deutsche Telekon’s software development kit, airlines can make the overall shopping experience more seamless: “Buy a sandwich, get some free Internet access, for example,” Fox says.

“We want to seamlessly merge connectivity into the airline proposition … Buy a sandwich, get some free Internet access.” — David Fox, Deutsche Telekom

Next-generation portals will deliver better content-serving platforms, both for media and advertising. The unified solution offers improved analytics reporting on which ads and pricing structures work and which do not. The net result is a better experience for the passenger and increased revenue for the airline.

For connectivity providers, this evolution means a significant change in the way they do business. Coiley’s team at Inmarsat noted that one airline partner quite easily and comfortably shifted to a more wholesale relationship in the way it delivered connectivity. “It would be more unusual if connectivity providers refused
to operate in that way,” he says.

With the next-generation systems, one factor is clear: The best results for passengers and airlines come when connectivity providers take a step back from the retail proposition and work instead as solution providers to their airline customers. Fortunately, that transition is already underway.

“Missed Connection” was originally published in the 7.5 December/January issue of APEX Experience magazine.