This week saw the 2014 SITA Air Transport IT Summit, held in Brussels, attract delegates from 61 countries and showcase how technology is helping to revolutionise the passenger experience, both at airports and in the air.
The event brought together representatives from innovative airlines and airports across the world to talk about what they are doing and why.
A session moderated by “Runway Girl” Mary Kirby saw Ian Dawkins, CEO of OnAir; David Stewart, VP, ICF International; and Abdulrahman Al Fahad, VP marketing and Product Management, Saudi Arabian Airlines, take to the stage.
David Stewart said over the next decade the global air travel fleet will grow to 31,000 with more than 11,300 new-generation (NewGen) IP-enabled aircraft.
“The rapid ramp up of NewGen aircraft will accelerate the demand for new e-enabled services. Come 2033, more than 75 per cent of aircraft flying will be connectivity enabled,” he said.
Stewart said that new technologies will drive greater operational efficiency, facilitate better schedule reliability and enhanced services for the passenger.
“Just the ability to use remote medical help (telemedicine) for passengers could prevent turn backs, with the associated delays,” he said.
“On the maintenance side. Airlines today spend around $70bn on maintenance. By e-enabling an aircraft you could reduce this and speed up turnaround times.
“The 787 has 28x greater data exchange capability than the 777 and aircraft maintenance manuals and data could be put in the cloud for everyone to share,” Stewart said.
Connectivity will also give passengers a seamless experience from ticketing to arrival.
“In my view embedded IFE on aircraft is old history now as airlines become more of a content provider and less of a hardware provider. As long as providers can give reliable low-cost connectivity with the ground.
“The passenger expects the latest and greatest in terms of connectivity speeds, but they want it to be affordable,” he added.
Abdulrahman Al Fahad, VP marketing and Product Management, Saudi Arabian Airlines, said Saudia is the only airline in the region offering free connectivity (for premium passengers).
Saudi carries around 25 million passengers a year and in the past six years the entire fleet has been renewed. Fifty percent of Saudi Arabia’s population are connected and online and it has the highest penetration of Twitter use in the world (the USA is eighth).
“This means we have to provide connectivity,” said Al Fahad. “We have 14 Boeing 777-300s, eight Boeing 787-9s and 12 Airbus A330-300 aircraft with connectivity.”
He added that Saudia deals with any complaints they see from passengers on Twitter by contacting the cabin manager while the aircraft is still in the air.
“The passengers are educating us now. They understand connectivity very well and soon tell us what they want,” Al Fahad said.
Ian Dawkins, CEO OnAir, said that connectivity is not just about the cabin. “The digital natives in the next decade are going to both be flying the aircraft and flying in the aircraft.
“The decisions we make today will affect the next generation,” Dawkins said.
He talked about nomophobia – the fear of being out of mobile phone contact. For the next generation this will be unacceptable.
“Many passengers are now carrying three different devices. These are going to start to merge and affect how people use them in the future.
“This year we will have 14 million people roaming on our network – that’s the same as the number of people currently roaming in Greece,” he said, and its just going to continue to grow.
“At the moment we can offer live news, but by 2020 inflight high-speed internet will allow a more personalised experience.”
Ian went on to talk about OnAir Play. This is a way of bringing real-time information up to the aircraft and has recently been chosen by Philippine Airlines.
“With OnAir Play we can upload news to an an aircraft two or three times per flight. The lead time for getting new content will slowly disappear. What will be shown live will be special events, such as the World Cup,” Dawkins said.
Its OnAir Plug solution also seamlessly connects crew devices. Allowing for mobile payments, defect notification, emergency telemedicine and baggage tracking.
In future Dawkins says that we can expect to see secure, real-time information uploads for flight planning, weather updates and aircraft monitoring.
“There is an element of aircraft monitoring today, but we will see a whole lot more. The industry needs to get to grips with what is coming and what the connected aircraft is all about.”
The next step must be an airline industry approach, he said.
“If we don’t get hold of this as an industry approach we will cause problems. We need new protocols do sharing and transferring data.
“We then need processes to harness and exploit these high volumes of complex data. Only then can we help airlines realise what the benefits can be,” Dawkins concluded.
Mary Kirby, Runway Girl Network, said: “In the past we have talked a lot about Ku v Ka etc, but it really comes down to service. Passengers want good service, but they don’t really care about the backbone.”
Ian Dawkins said that we won’t be able to keep up with what people are used to in their home. “Even in a hotel, the level of service drops around 7pm. You can imagine what it is like on an aircraft. You must manage people’s expectations and model your service to provide the best you can,” he said.