Case study: Global Eagle and Southwest Airlines

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A Southwest aircraft in flight.Global Eagle and Southwest Airlines recently presented a case study at the 2014 Passenger Experience Conference in Hamburg, looking at their inflight connectivity experience.

Southwest was the first airline in the US to get passengers connected. They currently have around 445 aircraft fitted with the Global Eagle Ku-band system, which gives passengers access to 20 TV channels as well as inflight internet.

They have gathered a lot of information about Ku-band satellite WiFi connectivity, inflight entertainment and how passengers use it.

Simon McLellan, Vice President of Engineering, Global Eagle Entertainment and Angela Vargo, Manager of Product Development, Southwest Airlines delivered the presentation.

Since the FAA lifted its ban on gate-to-gate device usage on October 31st 2013 both companies have carefully monitored how passengers are now using their tablets, laptops and smartphones.

McLellan explained that the Southwest system was always active in all phases of flight before the change, but the passenger SSID was switched off below 10,000 feet, leaving crew services active.

Once gate-to-gate was implemented they merely had to enable the passenger SSID below 10,000 feet, which they started on 20 November 2013.

But firstly, does the change to gate-to-gate mean that passengers no longer listen to safety briefings from the crew?

“No less than they ever did!” said Vargo.

“But what it does mean is that passengers can now walk through the airport, onto their flight and remain connected all the way. This opens up a lot of opportunities for us.”

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What has also happened is data usage has gone up. Now, 25% of all “inflight” data is now consumed while the aircraft is on the ground.

“By allowing usage gate-to-gate the average session length has increased by 30%, and there are 30% more simultaneous users,” said McLellan.

“There has also been an increase in Wi-Fi usage on short flights as passengers can now have a session that lasts 90 minutes and not 45.”

But how much does it cost? A day pass for Wi-Fi aboard Southwest costs $8 with no restriction on data usage.

“It is a simple model, but we feel it works,” said Vargo. “We want to give passengers value for what they are after.”

“We envisioned an increase in data consumption after moving to gate-to-gate, and we geared the system to cope with it,” McLellan added.

Some streaming video and high-bandwidth applications are restricted though.

“We prioritise the data packets so that people downloading emails may be slowed a little to give more priority to people browsing the web,” McLellan said. “In terms of TV we are not getting anywhere near the limit in terms of the numbers of passengers we can serve.

“We also want to give them the ability to do things that are unique. For example, the flight tracker on their own devices is fascinating for passengers.”

Vargo added that Southwest is well positioned to develop the model further, but passengers have to get used to the fact that they can use their devices all the time – that can be harder than it sounds.

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