Following a host of keynote sessions featuring interviews with airline CEOs from Qatar Airways, EL AL Israel Airlines, Spirit Airlines, SAUDIA and Fiji Airways, the Thought Leadership conference at the 2023 APEX IFSA Global EXPO in Long Beach, California, broke into three different tracks that focused on the topics of “Customer,” “Content” and “Connectivity.” Below is a summary of the sessions that took place within each track.
The Content track kicked off with a breakout session on “Multimodal IFE: The Challenge of Providing a Seamless Experience from Pre-airport Transportation to the Lounge to the Aircraft.” It looked at whether airlines should be aiming to cooperate with direct-to-consumer providers to overcome the obstacles of providing a holistic entertainment experience across the entire passenger journey.
Moderator Asif Khan, head of IFEC and Publications at Etihad Airways, said the different rules regarding content in-flight and on the ground regarding rights, release windows and content delivery specifications presented hurdles. Then, he asked, “Is there even time to be showing content in the airline lounge?”
Kate Groth, West Entertainment’s VP Content & Client Services, thought not: “When we think about the journey from door-to-door, the experience has to bring value. Information about gates and delays is important. Is whether we should be watching Barbie from door-to-door something we should even be talking about?” She went on to note that some studios are questioning whether showing content in the lounge is “cannibalizing their OTT platforms.”
Andre Valera, VP Business Development at Conectic, agreed. He argued, “If you captivate lounge passengers with content, you’re preventing them from duty-free activity. Perhaps it’s about helping passengers to find different places, to make the most of their dwell time, which is different to in-flight.”
“If content is promoted, then passengers will engage with it,” said Spafax’s CTO, Paul Colley. He used the company’s recent partnership with KidzTV as an example, which focused on passengers across the airport, rather than just lounge users. The company already runs a number of lounge screens for Air Canada and a few others. “If we have different content other than Hollywood movies, then maybe some of these challenges don’t exist,” he added.
The issue Colley identified instead was that, “If you start watching Barbie in the lounge, you need to be able to continue it on the flight, not start again and look for your place.”
Here, Estbaliz Aisian, Anuvu’s SVP Media & Content, weighed in. “That brand continuity is very difficult unless you want to use a portal and/or GUI similar to what you have onboard, but that also has its challenges.” Asian speaks from experience, stating, “Our non-theatrical division delivers content to hospitals or prisons in Canada, so we have a portal where the content is secure and you can continue watching elsewhere.”
The second session as part of the Content track, “Revolutionizing IFE: Ensuring 100% Accessibility with Closed Captions, Audio Descriptions, and User-Friendly Interfaces,” saw industry content delivery veteran Michael Childers discuss potential mandates proposed by US Congress regarding IFE accessibility with Ekrem Dimbiloglu, MD Customer Experience for DeltaStudio & Wi-Fi. Childers outlined the mandate in a video interview with APEX Media.
During the final Content session, “Revolutionizing IFE: The Future of Content Delivery Aboard Aircraft,” the panelists discussed cloud-based processing and smart metadata.
Delta’s Ekrem Dimbiloglu returned to the stage as moderator. Talking from personal experience as MD Customer Experience for DeltaStudio & Wi-Fi, he said that “content loading feels like you’re in 1998. It’s being loaded for hours at a time. At our airline we have a ten day window to get our 800 aircraft loaded with the new month’s media.”
He asked the panel how airlines will stay relevant when, in five to ten years, people can stream with Wi-Fi or bring their OTT content onboard and perhaps early window content is less exciting. Edward Edillon, Inflight Content Strategy & Partnerships at Viasat, said, “it’s understated how much curation goes into airline products and services.“ He continued, “As long as CSPs can strike really healthy deals with exclusive content, the value proposition is that while a passenger may have an OTT subscription, they won’t have all 25 of them.” He believes it’s about having “curated content that goes beyond movies to the fragments of the streaming services.”
Aisling Dougherty, Air New Zealand’s Product Manager, Inflight & Future Aircraft Cabin Experience, agreed. “We’re looking at partnering with streaming services that aren’t as popular in our neck of the woods – that’s a win-win for us and for streamers, as it exposes their content to a new audience,” she said.
Sanjiv Pimple, Senior Systems Engineer at Panasonic Avionics Corporation, said that from an in-flight entertainment (IFE) perspective, there needs to be a change in how metadata is handled. “When airlines need to add a new movie, we need to push it to the plane with connectivity.” He said Panasonic has achieved this with a few short daily news clips for an airline using its ZeroTouch technology, but the question is whether we can scale that up to a terabytes’ worth of content.
ABOVE’s founder and CEO, Michael Stattmann, pondered how airlines could use connectivity and personalization to take IFE to the next level in the future. “Maybe I could say which YouTubers I liked, and they could make it available on my screen.”
Before this can happen, Arthur Cuyugan, Spafax’s SVP Technical Services, explained that the quality control (QC) process will have to be streamlined. “We QC the content when it lands and when it’s delivered, they QC it again. Can we work together to shorten that process – maybe airlines can spot-check instead.” Stattman added that since 75% of content is the same across multiple airlines, the industry should leverage a standard file for the title in each different language.
Finally, the panel talked about automating the QC process. Cuyugan said tools exist to do so with regard to the technical aspects of files, such as “frame rates, resolution and making sure the right audio track is firing and in-sync.”
The opening Customer session focused on “Experience Opportunities: Making Airlines Millions More in Genuine Customer Service.” Moderated by Joshua Hirschheimer, Associate Partner at Porsche Consulting, it explored the key factors in creating a successful campaign to engage passengers and generate ancillary revenues.
For Andres Castañeda, Aeroméxico’s Chief Customer and Digital Officer & EVP, the focus is on ensuring a seamless brand experience across the airline’s operations, even when it comes down to the customers’ interaction with its partner airlines, such as Delta. “It means that you have to work with very different teams that have different cultures and different processes and policies. It’s a lot to cope with on the back end, but it is a winning strategy.”
This sentiment was echoed by Paul Verhagen, EVP and CCO at SAS. “Our priority is creating a website and an app that are a one stop shop for travel, not just ticket sales.” He gave the example that SAS recently launched with a new car rental partner that allows passengers to make booking without leaving SAS’ webpage, thereby giving the airline full control of rich passenger data. He elaborated on the importance of having the same experience on the airline website and app, too, sharing, “Up until a year ago, 95% of sales were done on the website. Today it’s already 75/25.”
Sam Martorella, Digital Product Manager at Thales, referenced a partnership between Delta and Starbucks, which saw the two companies link their loyalty programs. He said they were aiming for a million integrations within a year, and they achieved it within 16 days. To that end, he said aspirational partnerships have a real value, and airlines need to extend them into the air so passengers can also benefit during their flight. Martorella believes increased in-flight connectivity and therefore content loading to aircraft will make exciting things like this increasingly possible. “We continue to invest in a digital-first platform because that’s how airlines want to engage with brands,” he commented.
Finally, Dr. Zhihang Chi, Air China’s VP & General Manager, North America, reminded the audience that sometimes the passenger experience has nothing to do with the technology passengers interact with on the front end, but is all about seamless operations. He advocated for focusing on these pain points to increase customer satisfaction.
During the second Customer session, “The Dynamic Aircraft Seating of the Future: The Transition on the Horizon,” Brian Sumers, founder and editor at The Airline Observer spoke to panelists about how airlines and OEMs are responding to seating trends and accommodating shifting passenger needs.
Panelists included David Kondo, Head of Airports Customer Experience at Finnair; Mustafa Mucahitoglu, VP Customer Experience at Turkish Airlines; Stan Shparberg, Airbus’ SVP Head of Marketing; and Anton Vidgen, Riyadh Air’s VP Guest Experience.
The final Customer session centered on APEX Greener, a complimentary platform that will be launched by APEX to achieve unified certification of in-flight product sustainability. The 2023 APEX IFSA Global EXPO saw the APEX/IFSA Board of Governors vote unanimously to advance the APEX Greener program.
Led by SimpliFlying’s CEO Shashank Nigam, the panel discussion featured Akira Mitsumasu, Advisor to the SAUDIA Director General; Andre Viljoen, Fiji Airways Managing Director & CEO; and Dr. Fereshta Yazdani, a Consultant and Data Scientist at Lufthansa. Read more about what they had to say.
The first session in the Connectivity track was titled “The Future of Air Travel: Harnessing the Power of LEO, MEO, GEO, and ATG Connectivity.” Moderated by Patrick Brannelly, SVP Retail, IFE & Connectivity at Emirates, it looked at the benefits and the challenges associated with the convergence of the convergence of low-Earth Orbit (LEO), medium-Earth Orbit (MEO), Geostationary Orbit (GEO) and ground connectivity.
On the challenges, Nick Galano, Director of Starlink Sales at SpaceX, was optimistic. “There’s a tendency to overcomplicate things,” he said. “Our amazing engineers have a tendency to solve problems with simplicity. One of the things that we look at is how many smartphones exist around the world, and they already work well on Wi-Fi, because it’s simple. So how can we, within the challenges and constraints and the opportunity of aviation, drive towards that frictionless experience as well?”
Philippe Schleret, VP Aviation at Telesat; and John Wade, VP of the Connectivity Business Unit at Panasonic Avionics, shared their excitement about LEO services. Schleret said, “If you want to be end-to-end with a very consistent level of quality of experience, then the best way to do that is to remain on LEO all throughout the journey, and have enough capacity to serve the aircraft along the way.”
Wade added, “Historically, satellite has been the communications system of last resort, so it never really caught up with what was happening terrestrially. I’m so convinced right now that this is a defining moment for IFC because of what Starlink and Telesat and OneWeb and others are doing. Their networks are designed to be competitive with what’s happening terrestrially. We’re going to be bringing a network to aviation which is designed for much more than just a communication system of last resort. It is designed for consumers … that is going to be the transformative thing in the next five to seven years.”
On this transformation, chairman and CTO at ThinKom Solutions, said, “It is hard for me to imagine that 10 years from now there won’t be multiple systems tapping into Q, V, and E bands for connectivity.”
Karthik Bharathan, Director of Product Management at Viasat, reiterated the importance of collaboration, claiming, “An antenna terminal is just a bunch of hardware until the right service provider steps in and truly energizes the terminal and then you see the magic.”
The second session, “FlightPlan: How to Leverage IFC to Drive Ancillaries and Build Passenger Loyalty” saw moderator Jonas von Kruechten, head of Strategy and Business Development at AERQ and Chair of the APEX TECH Committee, host a discussion about the intersection between in-flight connectivity and customer loyalty.
Helga Bjarnadóttir, Director of Product and Service management at Icelandair, said the carrier chose partners for its Airbus fleet “based on how fast [it] can get content and advertising to passengers.” High on the wishlist was the ability to “have destination segmentation, so specific content and adverts for passengers coming to and leaving Iceland.”
Matthew Blay, Co-Founder, Partnerships & Business Development at Inadvia, agreed with Bjarnadóttir that along with the aircraft tail number, the origin and destination of the aircraft are one of the most powerful data sets an airline can leverage. He added that this is further enhanced if airlines have the ability to ask their passengers a couple of questions, such as whether they’re flying with their family, or whether they’re flying for business or pleasure. He said that if agencies could creatively apply advertising planning to this, then they could garner the highest of revenues thanks to the controlled environment of the flight and the mindset of the audience.
Haley Meidell, Principal Consultant at ZeroG, highlighted that if passengers using in-flight connectivity are logged into their loyalty accounts in-flight, then airlines can deliver a more specialized service based on real-time decisions. Meidell said this works especially well in terms of readdressing situations that haven’t gone well: “The timing works better. If you’re not on a flight then an email with an offer in it to try and make up for past errors will be less relevant and less appreciated.”
However, since Bjarnadóttir raised concerns about how to successfully drive ancillaries across IFC provided by two different vendors, Meidell suggested starting by using data that is available on the ground, so any subsequent offers and services are available to passengers engaging with both vendors.
Mark Cheyney, IFEC Strategy, Performance and Operations Manager at IAG, agreed that managing two vendors is really difficult. “We’ve built our own portal that’s platform-agnostic at IAG, so it’s across all airlines and vendors with different airline branding. That task in itself isn’t for the faint of heart.” Instead of doing that, Cheyney advised, “Get connectivity providers on side. The Seamless Air Alliance is an important part of that – use it as a forum to lean on providers to standardize back end infrastructure that’s critical to delivering personalization. It’s not the end goal, but working collaboratively with industry bodies can help airlines that don’t want to create a universal portal.”