APEX 2018

All images: Greg Verville

APEX TECH took off yesterday in Los Angeles. Keynotes from Panasonic Avionics’ David Bartlett, JetSuite CEO Alex Wilcox, Finnair’s Jaron Millner and Aeromexico’s Pablo Gómez Gallardo Maass addressed topics ranging from dark data and intracity aviation to the unification of customer touchpoints and digital expansion. Routehappy’s Jonathan Savitch presented the results of its 2018 Wi-Fi Report, which indicates that in-flight connectivity availability is approaching 50%. The afternoon was dedicated to an INTERACT working session on airline connectivity requirements and best practices, which included panelists from Lufthansa Technik, Panasonic Avionics, Gogo, Inmarsat, SIE, Thales, SmartSky Networks and Eutelsat.

DIGITAL CABIN 2.0

“We can invent the future of the inflight experience. To me, it’s not a job, it’s a mission,” said David Bartlett, chief technology officer, Panasonic Avionics. Leading off the APEX TECH conference in Los Angeles, Bartlett outlined the work Panasonic is doing to develop the “Digital Cabin 2.0,” which leverages cloud technology to bring an enhanced and personalized experience directly to each passenger. “What I’m building at Panasonic is a build-out on the ground. The cool thing about aviation is that the cloud is on the ground, and then the edge is in the air – where the localized processing is done,” said Bartlett. With a background in data science, he explained that while broadband connectivity will enable dynamic updates, onboard systems must also be designed to operate independently.

There’s an incredible amount of data generated during every flight, but Bartlett said that 90% of it is “dark data,” which is data that “we’re just sitting on, that isn’t correlated, and is unstructured.” Recognizing the growing importance of this “big data” analysis, Bartlett announced the opening of a new Panasonic Avionics’ office in Silicon Valley. “I’m going to hire the latest talent to build out the cloud infrastructure.”

“I think the way forward is not working as individual companies as much as we did in the past, which is why I like this conference,” said Bartlett. “It’s really about bringing together the partnered ecosystem that’s going to change the future of the inflight experience.”

FROM JETBLUE TO JETSUITE: TRANSFORMING TRAVEL

Alex Wilcox, CEO of JetSuite, began his presentation with a scarcely believable statistic: less people are flying US regional flights now than in 2000. “The overall market is up 30% from 2000, but market for under 500 miles is down by 30%,” he said. How can this be? His answer: “The airport experience is so horrible that you spend more time in the airport than in the air.” This is why, in 2006, Wilcox formed private charter airline JetSuite, to give customers what they want. JetSuite cut the average price of a private jet flight from $8000 to $4000. Just under two years ago, he launched JetSuiteX, offering a private aviation-style experience, including transportation to and from an airport, on a fleet of Embraer ERJ135 regional jets at fares comparable to rival commercial airlines. “The problem we are solving is getting from one point to the other as fast as possible. It’s not enough to get from airport to airport, you need to think about how to get to the airport.”

Looking forward, Wilcox revealed JetSuite is in discussions with Zunum, a company that plans to launch a commercial short-haul electric-powered aircraft within 10 years. He also said intra-city flights will represent a big opportunity. “The problem is about to how to get from Orange County to LAX. Vertical takeoff and landing aircraft is the answer to this,” he said. “If Uber does it and we don’t, we’ve really failed. It would be a testament to how badly we understand our customers.”

THE FINNISHING TOUCH: MASTERING TECH CUSTOMER TOUCHPOINTS AND ECOSTRUCTURE

How can airlines turn customers into loyal fans? For Finnair, the answer lies in unifying its customer touchpoints, according to Jaron Millner, the airline’s VP for Digital Service and Platforms Strategy. “We noticed how people engaged us online was that they wanted something much broader,” he explained. “We began by looking at our various touchpoints, such as our website, mobile app, Nordic Sky connectivity portal and in-flight entertainment, to find ways that we can unify these.” Engaging customers via Finnair’s “first tier” touchpoints, as opposed to through social media platforms such as Facebook and WeChat, has reaped dividends, he explained.

Millner said the airline’s Nordic Sky portal offers more than in-flight connectivity. “It provides an avenue to continue our dialog with our customers. There is a significant difference in engaging our customers directly versus indirectly when it comes to ancillaries.” In order to do this, Millner said Finnair developed an in-house digital team. “The ability to develop things fast means we have been able to connect our customers to our service delivery teams so we can pinpoint the items that provide value.”

AEROMÉXICO AND THE DIGITAL CUSTOMER EXPERIENCE

Aeromexico needed to better understand its passengers’ journey to best revise its outdated web and mobile presence in 2014, according to Pablo Gómez Gallardo Maass, the airline’s vice-president of E-commerce and Digital Advertising. “We knew we had to do something bigger, to be inspirational, to reflect Mexico’s heritage,” said Gómez-Gallardo. In 2014, the airline’s digital team was just six people, handling everything from e-commerce to social media. Now, Aeromexico’s team of over 90 people have done extensive research into the passenger experience and created what Gómez-Gallardo described as “new tools to experience a new way to travel.” The intensive work showed impressive results – in three years, the airline saw sales triple. Mobile traffic, which is an important data point in Mexico, has also grown by 50%.

The airline has also created its own API – or application programming interface – that connects to both internal and external platforms, such as hotel and rental car systems. “Now we’re looking at how we can hook that API into the in-flight experience,” said Gómez-Gallardo. Aeromexico will soon take delivery of its first of 60 Boeing 737MAXs, equipped with Panasonic Avionics’ line-fit eX1 seatback IFE system. Gómez-Gallardo said that the airline is working to use its API to narrowly personalize the passenger experience on its new planes. By linking the airline’s background data on a passenger to the specific details of a flight, including destination and onboard seat choice, “the idea is to get personalized content – it’s about connecting the dots.”

2018 STATE OF WI-FI AND MAXIMIZING AIRCRAFT INVESTMENTS

“Where are we with in-flight Wi-Fi?” asked Jonathan Savitch, Routehappy’s chief commercial officer, as he presented the results of Routehappy’s 2018 Wi-Fi Report. In-flight connectivity is “fast becoming the norm,” he continued. Eighty-two airlines worldwide now offer in-flight Wi-Fi, 12 more than this time last year, according to the report. Routehappy’s research indicates that 43% of available seat miles (ASMs: the number of seats for sale multiplied by the number of miles flown) offer in-flight connectivity that is partially or fully rolled out. This represents a 10% increase compared to last year’s report. In other words, there is more than a four-in-10 chance that a commercial airline passenger will have access to in-flight Wi-Fi. “It’s fast approaching 50%,” Savitch said. “Two years ago, there was only a one in three chance you would board a flight with Wi-Fi.” Read the full story.

APEX AIRLINE CONNECTIVITY REQUIREMENTS AND BEST PRACTICES: AN INTERACT WORKING SESSION PART I

APEX CEO Joe Leader unveiled the results of the APEX Connectivity Survey at APEX TECH in the first of Tuesday afternoon’s working sessions. “This is one of our most important initiatives as an association,” said Leader. “We had every APEX member worldwide participate in a global airline survey with some of the questions that you wanted answered. All of our vendors offering connectivity, that are part of the APEX community, also participated. The most surprising elements are all the differences between what the airlines think, and what the vendors think that the airlines think, or how they think they’re looking at the world.” The survey shows that there is a significant difference between the two stakeholders when looking at the drivers for establishing connectivity. Airlines equally rated passenger demand for connectivity and creating a service enhancement or discriminator from other carriers as the most important reasons. Vendors, on the other hand, think that passenger demand far exceeds the need for service enhancement by a factor of almost three to one.

Airlines believe it’s important for IFE connectivity hardware options to be easily interchangeable – over 85% of the responses fall into the “important” and “very important” categories, while vendors are at less than 50% in the two categories. Both vendors and airlines agree on how well connectivity currently satisfies airline key objectives for passenger engagement, services and desired airline outcomes. The vast majority of airline responses – 83% – believe that services are “not yet able to meet all key airline objectives – but soon.” Two-thirds of vendors responded in favor of that answer, while more than one in five believed that “yes, the IFEC service offerings are evolving to meet all key airline objectives.”

The full survey results, along with the respondents’ comments to each question, became the springboard for the rest of the afternoon’s interactive program.

APEX AIRLINE CONNECTIVITY REQUIREMENTS AND BEST PRACTICES: AN INTERACT WORKING SESSION PART IIA

 

Megabits-per-second, throughput, Ku-band, Ka-band; from an in-flight Wi-Fi user standpoint, are these meaningful performance measurements? This was the question posed by Stephan Schulte, manager, Strategy & Business Development, Lufthansa Technik AG, who hosted this session.

From a passenger viewpoint, Jon Norris, Panasonic Avionics’ senior director, Corporate Sales and Marketing, said, he would want to know how close an in-flight Wi-Fi experience could come to matching what is possible on the ground. “I don’t want to know what the throughput is. What I want to know is; can I run the apps I want to run when I want to run them,” he said. “As vendors we play the numbers game, but this doesn’t translate into want passengers want.”

Blane Boynton, Gogo’s vice-president of Product Management had his own proposal. “We need to create a passenger experience score, a way of grading. Something we’ve spend a lot of time at Gogo doing is measuring frameworks and metrics that come from elsewhere.” What airlines want in terms of connectivity depends on who they are, he said. “We try to optimize a solution without reinventing the wheel.”

David Coiley, Inmarsat’s vice-president of Aviation, said, speaking from a satellite operator’s perspective, “Satellite operators are always looking to find a return on investment. Aviation alone can be very peaky in terms of where it wants coverage.”

APEX AIRLINE CONNECTIVITY REQUIREMENTS AND BEST PRACTICES: AN INTERACT WORKING SESSION PARTS IIB & III

The interactive session continued with a shift in focus to connectivity standards for Ku- and Ka-band connectivity systems. Consultant Peter Lemme provided an update on the work being done on the “clean sheet design” of the proposed ARINC 792 standard. With a fraction of the wiring in the previous ARINC 791, higher power to the antenna, and the capability to handle the installation of large aperture phased-array antennas, “this is a very significant development,” said Lemme. “Compared to 791, there are no options in 792. There’s only one way to build it. There’s only one way to install it.”

The concept of standardized installations that permit a “plug and play” solution for hardware upgrades may be appealing, but not all airframes, even of the same aircraft type are truly the same, according to John Courtright, Sales and Business Development Executive, SIE. When SIE began installing connectivity equipment on Southwest Airlines’ Boeing 737s “we were told, ‘it’s no problem, it’s a common fleet,’” said Courtright. He explained that it turned out that there were 11 variants of the supplemental type certificate (STC) granting permission to modify Southwest’s 737s. “You might ask why? Southwest, like any other operator, when they need lift, they acquire aircraft from different sources – Boeing, other airlines, leasing companies – that have their airplanes configured completely differently,” said Courtright.

“At Panasonic, we applaud the move forward with the [791 and 792] standards with the caveat that the standard has to keep pace or be in advance of the pace of installations of new technologies,” said Jon Norris, Panasonic Avionics’ senior director, Corporate Sales and Marketing

Sam Garg, vice-president, Connectivity at Thales, believes that it’s important to first understand the root cause of the push for standardization. “If the airlines are unhappy with the performance or don’t have confidence in their chosen provider, that may be a reason to drive towards standardization. If you had a 15-year confidence in the technology, then maybe there’d be less of a desire…It’s hard to standardize innovation.

Session moderator David Coiley, Inmarsat, reinforced that opinion: “Other things being equal, in extremis, standardization will stifle innovation.” He turned to Mary Rogozinski, VP, Airlines at SmartSky Networks to speak to how “SmartSky is doing something different to how the other panelists are operating.”

“Yes, David, we implemented a very unique technology,” said Rogozinski, describing SmartSky’s new air-to-ground connectivity (ATG) service for both business and commercial aircraft. Noting the “plug and play” design of SmartSky’s in-cabin components, and its unique ATG antennas, “I think there’s great value in looking at standardization in the aircraft, but less on the outside of the aircraft.”

Gogo’s Blane Boynton looks at standardization from the perspective of a product manager. “I’m making sure that the configurations I have in the field are as few as possible. From that viewpoint, the standards help me to be able to design one box. But it’s important that the OEMs adopt the standard…There’s another area I think is equally as important, around software standards, and I don’t think it gets the time that’s required,” said Boynton. “Software is going to be an increasingly important part of the system.”

Jags Burhm, SVP, Aero and Global Mobility at Eutelsat, believes “that standardization is a good thing when it comes to the aircraft, but I do unfortunately disagree with the [APEX Survey] feedback of reduced hardware costs. But fundamentally, I think the actual innovation is going to be on the software side. The Aeromexicos, the Finnairs and the Deltas of this world are showing that’s where all the golden nuggets are.”

In a final comment, Panasonic’s Norris wondered if the idea that standards will reduce hardware costs isn’t the right approach. “What if we actually looked at it from the point of view of what we are trying to achieve as a business outcome?” he asked. “Why don’t we look at it from a total cost of ownership. You don’t put connectivity on a plane to have connectivity on a plane. It enables a bunch of services that derive value.”

APEX CEO Joe Leader wrapped up the session by inviting and encouraging airline members to participate in the APEX connectivity working group.

Click here for takeaways from Day 2.