Opinion: The New Normal Will be Better Than Ever for Airlines With Great Products & Services

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In the Hot Seat-Patrick Brannelly

Patrick Brannelly is SVP Retail, IFE & Connectivity at Emirates. He has been with the airline since 1992 and is responsible for shaping the at-seat customer experience. He created Emirates’ “ice” in-flight entertainment product, which today offers over 4,000 channels of entertainment and more than 1,000 movies. Patrick has served three terms as president of APEX.

The pandemic has shaken the in-flight entertainment (IFE) industry. People will travel again – more than before – and they’ll want even greater travel experiences, including the best IFE. You cannot ‘save’ your way out of a crisis, although it offers short-term relief. The ‘new normal’ will be better for airlines with great products and services, as customers are becoming more discerning.

Patrick Brannelly, Emirates

Can you share a few specific ways in which IFE has been shaken? Are there some business models, services or technologies that will not survive?

Almost every industry on the planet has been hard-hit by COVID-19, but probably none more so than aviation. Specifically for IFE, hardware vendors are seeing system deliveries delayed as aircraft orders are deferred, and their MRO income reduce as aircraft are flying less.

Content production, especially for movies and TV shows, halted for many months, thus distributors have been hit. This is compounded by the reduced buying from airlines that are facing dire circumstances with parked aircraft and passenger loads reduced.

Around this are a plethora of service providers that lived off that eco-system: all also struggling, and some are going bankrupt. It’s tough for everyone to survive through this period and, sadly, across our industry many, many excellent and expert people have been furloughed or laid off.  We’ve all had to find ways to work with less resources, which has not been easy but, on a positive note, it should further hone efficiency in the longer term.

Surely there should be a balance between saving and investing right now. With regards to IFE, can you share your thoughts on where it makes sense to save and where it’s necessary to invest?

When airlines were grounded last March and April, there was a critical need to conserve cash, although in reality our reduction in overall spend did not nearly match the reduction in passenger numbers. We lost the economies of scale, therefore spending far more per passenger on IFE content and integration than before.

You cannot ignore financials, but you’ll never save your way out of a crisis. Some suppliers have understood the gravitas of the current situation better than others, and we’ve done deals with them versus others who push for the same deal as before, ignoring the current reality. However, overall success will only come when we attract everyone back to flying again, when it is safe to do so, and then product will be as important as ever.  We’re doing everything we can to maintain Emirates’ signature product promise, but the key challenge at the moment is that there are less big movies coming out of Hollywood than usual.  Emirates is super confident that the world will bounce back, and when it does, we’ll be ready.

Patrick Brannelly square
Patrick Brannelly, SVP Retail, IFE & Connectivity at Emirates

Which aspects of the Emirates IFEC experience are receiving the most attention from your team right now?

Our key focus has been to keep the product alive and exciting with a smaller team here. We’ve also focussed on driving efficiency and simplifying processes for the future. We’ve been back in the office every day as normal since mid-June and it’s been extremely busy for the team. I’m so proud of them.

How will IFE consumption habits have changed by the time we get back to typical route networks and load factors? What are the pros and cons of these changes?

I’m not sure consumption habits have changed or will on our aircraft. We see people watching movies and TV as much as ever. There aren’t as many frequent flyers at the moment, so there is a reduced need to refresh 30-40% of the content each month, which is helpful as there is less content to buy. But on the other hand, it seems everyone binge-watched during lockdown at home, so we need fresh content urgently!

What role will IFE play in monitoring and/or reporting on health and ensuring safety for passengers and crew as we restart travel? 

We introduced a feature in 2003 that allowed crew to send text messages to every seat. This feature has become critical now as it allows us to remind passengers to respect health protocols or advise them about new onboard procedures. The seatback survey has also been hugely helpful in monitoring passenger sentiment during this time, as some services have been restricted due to regulations or social distancing requirements.

Images via Emirates

Will we finally reach a point post-pandemic where IFE and connectivity are effectively monetized? What’s going to get us there?

We know from experience that in-flight retail is far more successful when tightly integrated with IFE and connectivity, so yes. History has taught us that the moment you charge even $1 for a service such as in-flight Wi-Fi or telephony, demand collapses. To succeed, payment must be seamless – outdated barriers such as the need to swipe a credit card won’t work! Payment methods using contactless, e-wallets and miles redemption are critical, most of which we already use today. Passengers are more likely to pay for Wi-Fi, retail or telephony if the service is good, it’s easy to pay and the UX is excellent.

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