Building Back Better: Airlines Connect With IFC

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FTE APEX Virtual Expo IFC
The panel (from top, clockwise): Tara Bamburg, Derrick Cunningham, Intelsat’s Frederik van Essen and Moderator Maryann Simson.

Airlines are finding opportunity amid the COVID-19 downturn to take operations-focused connectivity projects off the back burner, further reinforcing the business case for IFC, say leaders from Alaska Airlines and Southwest Airlines. This article originally appeared in Expo Daily Experience. Read the full issues and register for FTE APEX Virtual Expo — the platform will remain open as a resource until January 8.

For years suppliers have touted the operational benefits of in-flight connectivity solutions as a way to justify investment for airlines. But carriers were so focused on passenger needs that these opportunities took a back seat. Now, with passenger levels depressed, airlines are finally able to clear their development backlogs and deliver those crew-focused solutions.

Internal Communications
Alaska Airlines, for example, took a new look at how crew interact digitally in the air and on the ground. IFEC Program Manager Derrick Cunningham describes the pandemic as “a forcing function for us to continue innovating.” And from that innovation, the onboard chat feature was born. It’s “something that we had always wanted to do,” he says. By allowing the cabin crew to communicate digitally through their devices, they no longer have to waste time traversing the plane just to talk. Aside from the operational benefit, it’s also helping to keep both passengers and staff safe during COVID-19 by limiting the crew’s presence in the aisles.

Gate agents can use the chat tool as well, which has improved the onboarding process, and there are plans to extend it to pilots and dispatchers in the future, says Cunningham.

The feature is part of a collection of modules the airline is building as opposed to individual apps. By creating a single, common interface for crew-related functions, Cunningham says it will improve adoption and reduce confusion.

Alaska is also piloting the integration of a medical advisory service for crew, allowing them to “communicate with experts on the ground and avoid costly diversions, while protecting passenger health,” he adds.

A Strong Foundation
Tara Bamburg, Southwest Airlines manager, Inflight WiFi and Entertainment, shares that the airline is shifting focus to “foundational things.” One highlight on that front is an update to the onboard portal so passengers have access to sample arrival forms for a variety of destinations. The carrier used to include those in the in-flight magazine but as its network expanded, that became harder to maintain, requiring more support from flight attendants. The digital solution reduces the interaction in the aisles and helps ensure accurate answers.

Bamburg also sees live chat with agents on the ground as a future use case. Anything that can “bring some power back to the customer, so they don’t feel that anxiety” is on the table, she says.

Now that teams have the time to build these efficiency-boosting types of tools, they may just emerge as the key to in-flight connectivity profitability, while reducing costs at the same time.

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