The increasing demand for inflight connectivity was a major topic of discussion at Aircraft Interior Expo. According to Inmarsat’s annual passenger survey report, 66% of respondents who believed Wi-Fi was fundamental to daily life said In-Flight Connectivity (IFC) was a necessity. 

The logical progression for In-Flight Connectivity (IFC) is to offer free Wi-Fi access onboard, mirroring the democratization of internet access on land that occurred in recent years. However, making this a reality poses challenges. The obstacles include affordability, especially for low-cost carriers (LCCs) and short-haul aircraft, as well as the complexity of implementation. Nevertheless, potential technical and commercial solutions are on the horizon.

The primary challenge revolves around ensuring consistent capacity and reliability throughout the flight and cabin. Fortunately, advancements in GEO/LEO satellite coverage are expected to conquer this hurdle in the near future, providing robust connectivity, leveraging the potential of both types of satellite for a seamless online experience. The GEO satellite remains above the same location on the ground thousands of kilometers from earth while LEO satellite are placed a few kilometers from the Earth and rotate around it, moving along their own orbit.

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“Our future is a hybrid network operation where we’re using both GEO satellites and LEO satellites, and we are 1,000% believers in that future” Mike Pigott Anuvu executive vice-president connectivity

“We believe that is the future state for the next five to 10 years for in-flight connectivity, but we’re not there yet. We’re in a GEO-only world today and so our bridge to LEO’ concept is how we can best serve our customers and get them to that hybrid network future.”

The second challenge pertains to the costs associated with providing free Wi-Fi onboard. Airlines are exploring various strategies to reduce these costs. One approach is the freemium model, wherein airlines offer multiple packages with varying prices based on factors such as usage duration, data allowance (in Megabytes or Gigabytes), or connection speed. Additionally, airlines are exploring financing opportunities through increased onboard e-commerce and advertising.

In the United States, over 80% of flights are equipped with in-flight Wi-Fi internet access, as well as many European airlines including Air France, Air Berlin, British Airways, Emirates, Ryanair, and Vueling. Some airlines started offering free Wi-Fi, such as Philippines Airlines, Norwegian, JetBlue, and others.

An interesting observation is that when Wi-Fi is provided free of charge, the usage rate can reach as high as 60-80%, whereas a pay model typically achieves a maximum utilization of 10%.

While connectivity is becoming a vital element for an airline’s attractiveness, its flawless accessibility remains a complex promise. Moreover, access to connectivity in an aircraft varies according to the type of accessibility. It’s not the same technical prowess or the same price to provide access to communication connectivity (access to sms etc) or global connectivity for surfing and streaming. To guarantee a seamless journey in terms of entertainment, IFE remains a safe, high-quality asset for airlines. 

In the meantime, education and communication play a crucial role for airlines in bridging the gap between passenger expectations and the current reality. By setting realistic expectations and effectively communicating the available services, airlines can genuinely improve passengers’ in-flight experience and avoid disappointment or frustration.