Airline Panel Reveals What’s on the Horizon for IFEC

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APEX Viasat Thought Leadership Session
Clockwise: Brian Sumers, Rick Baldridge, Andres Castaneda, Clarissa Sebastian and Don Buchman

On January 27, APEX and Viasat hosted a revealing virtual thought leadership session that shed light on how the in-flight connectivity landscape has shifted since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. Viewers were also able to ask their questions live. APEX members that missed it can watch the recording here.

As the coronavirus pandemic drags on, some casual observers of the aviation industry are legitimately wondering if the situation will ever return to normal. The panel of executives featured in the latest APEX digital thought leadership session, however, are optimistic that the industry will bounce back. More specifically, they are confident in the investments they have made in in-flight entertainment and connectivity (IFEC).

For Viasat, the pandemic is a small hiccup in the context of its ten-year growth plan. The company steadfastly believes that opportunities for growth in this sector will not change. “Airlines are very demanding,” said Rick Baldridge, Viasat’s president and CEO, during his fireside chat. He was referring to the high expectations placed on IFEC providers for consistency and reliability of service.

It’s a reflection of what today’s travelers want most: the ability to enjoy in-flight connectivity that matches the standard they experience at home. Baldridge noted that recent growth in demand for robust streaming capabilities demonstrate how important it is for Viasat to focus heavily on adding spectrum and bandwidth.

During the ten-month period since the crisis began, leisure travelers have outnumbered their business-oriented counterparts. But this has not led to a difference in IFC takeup rates, and the activities that these travelers partake in while online haven’t changed much either. Baldridge explained that audio, video and even VPN connections are still the order of the day. “Just because they’re not traveling for business, it doesn’t mean they don’t have a job,” he said, encouraging airlines to recognize the work-from-home connectivity needs of leisure travelers.

“We’re shifting away from providing things for the sake of things and really drilling into what the brand’s core values are.”

Clarissa Sebastian, American Airlines

The panelists that appeared during the second half of the broadcast confirmed that recent IFEC usage rates remained comparable to pre-pandemic levels. Andres Castañeda, VP at Aeromexico; Clarissa Sebastian, managing director, Premium Customer Experience at American Airlines; and Don Buchman, VP at Viasat, all shed light on what kinds of trends they were seeing in this space. All parties agreed that they could bring a lot of innovative products to market, but the crisis has taught them to be speedier with this process for the sake of getting feedback early, instead of taking months to craft a perfect offering that has fallen out of vogue by the time of release.

During tough economic times, it also makes sense to be more judicious with IFEC deployment. Buchman said Viasat understands this and has been cooperative with airlines, working with them to identify ways of reducing expenditure while keeping customer satisfaction high. While sponsorships can go a long way towards covering the cost of connectivity, unlocking content based on what passengers most want to watch is also wise, Buchman said. He referenced the spike in demand for live sports when an important match is underway as an example where having access to one channel is more valuable to customers than having multiple options available.

Content is clearly still important to airlines, but there are other facets to IFEC now being considered too. Dynamic and personalized advertising is being scrutinized by American Airlines and Aeromexico, and Viasat is very keen on deploying artificial intelligence, machine learning and data analysis to introduce new efficiencies in flight operations.

During the session, Viasat also stated its case in the seatback versus bring-your-own-device debate. To glean more insights on this and other areas of the rapidly evolving IFEC space, APEX members can watch the free session here.

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