The European Aviation Network – An interview with Inmarsat

The eagerly awaited European Aviation Network from Inmarsat has recently hit an important milestone. It has now been soft-launched on enough aircraft to provide connectivity to more than 30,000 passengers a day on over 100 routes around the continent.

Get Connected spoke exclusively to Inmarsat to find out what’s so good about the EAN and what it means for the future of European aviation.

Connected in flight
Short haul European fliers can look forward to staying connected. Photo: Inmarsat

What’s so good about the EAN?

We’re not talking about any old IFEC solution here. The EAN stands out from the crowd for a number of reasons. For a start, it’s been built for Europe, by Europe, to provide incredible coverage no matter where an airline flies. It’s built on a unique European infrastructure, which combines the best of 4G ground connections with satellite networks, for complete coverage across the continent.

Inmarsat touts the system as being ‘just like you’d get on your sofa at home’, and it seems like they are true to their word. Delivering speeds of 75Mbps to the aircraft, combined with very low latency (ten times lower than any other network), passengers are able to enjoy video streaming, social networking and even connected gaming via their own devices while onboard.

The system uses Inmarsat’s advanced S-band satellite with Deutsche Telekom’s LTE network to provide high capacity coverage throughout Europe. The components carried by aircraft are small and lightweight, and can be installed in as little as nine hours!

Inmarsat satellite launch
The EAN satellite launch. Photo: Inmarsat

Of course, Inmarsat couldn’t have done it alone. In a recent event to celebrate the successful soft launch of the technology, Inmarsat brought together the partners involved in the project, including Deutsche Telekom, Nokia, Thales, Cobham, Arianespace, Aeroantenna, Airbus, Brynleigh Technology, Kontron, TTP, EAD Aerospace, JV Aeroservices, PMV Engineering, STS Aeromod, LHT and Sasken. Inmarsat CEO Rupert Pearce said at the event,

“EAN tells a story of Europe coming together to create innovative services in the world’s largest and fastest-growing short-haul aviation market … For airlines looking to put state-of-the-art mobile broadband services onto their aircraft in Europe, it’s got to be EAN.”

The EAN covers all 28 EU countries, plus Norway and Switzerland, and provides seamless connectivity across land and over the sea. It won the APEX Best Inflight Connectivity Innovation award in 2017.

Who’s using the EAN so far?

IAG was announced as the launch customer for EAN back in 2017, and have begun with soft-launching the product with British Airways. According to Inmarsat, British Airways have already installed the technology on many of their aircraft, and are continuing to install at pace. In time, all their short-haul planes will be fitted with EAN technology, giving passengers comprehensive coverage on all European routes.

British Airways
British Airways have been installing the system ‘at pace’. Photo: Pixabay

IAG seems keen to roll out the technology to other fleets in their group too. Iberia is in a soft launch phase, so we expect to start seeing more WiFi-equipped aircraft from them pretty soon. Another IAG airline plans to install in the future, although they haven’t started quite yet.

As far as other airlines go, Inmarsat is relatively tight-lipped about who’s next. They did say that a ‘number of conversations’ were ongoing, and we don’t doubt that we’ll hear more about them soon. EAN is just as relevant to low-cost carriers as to full-service airlines, perhaps even more so in terms of ancillary revenue generation. It would be incredibly exciting to see the system installed on a huge fleet like Ryanair, but we’ll have to wait to see if and when that happens.

What do passengers think about the EAN?

Inmarsat has worked hard to make the technology as accessible to passengers as possible. Joining the EAN on board a connected aircraft is as easy as connecting to a network. Some airlines are choosing to operate it via a branded portal, but for the customer, it’s as easy as joining any other WiFi service.

While feedback on the system is really the privilege of the airlines themselves, Inmarsat commented that they have received great feedback via social media for the system. Many have commented that they didn’t know such technology existed, and there has been plenty of praise for the speeds and reliability of the service.

What’s the benefit for airlines?

The EAN has some significant benefits for airlines wishing to take up the technology. Firstly, it drives customer loyalty. There’s a lot of research out there determining the customer satisfaction and loyalty benefits from offering key services such as in-flight connectivity. As more competitors begin to offer connected short-haul flights within Europe, the race will be on for all carriers to catch up with their peers and to ensure they offer such services too.

Inmarsat EAN very small
The Inmarsat team with the very small components of the EAN. Photo: Inmarsat

Secondly, IFEC has the ability to generate additional revenue for airlines. The most straightforward way to visualize this, of course, is through airlines charging for the service. While this may fit in with the low-cost models of Ryanair and the like, full-service carriers may prefer to offer it as a complimentary service and to recoup their costs through other means.

These other revenue streams are many and varied. They range from advertising by third parties through to premium purchases such as movies on demand. There is also a big market for e-commerce revenue generation, through online shopping portals and similar services. In fact, the London School of Economics estimates broadband-enabled ancillary revenue to be worth $30bn to airlines by 2035.

Finally, EAN offers new ways for airlines to save money too. The sheer lightness and small size of the installed technology means there is less weight and fuel drag than with some other systems. The fast installation time means there’s no need for additional downtime for aircraft, as the system can be installed overnight during regular maintenance periods.

Small low weight components
The small, lightweight components of the EAN solution. Image: Inmarsat

When used in conjunction with Inmarsat’s cockpit solutions, pilots can stay connected in flight too. This can enable the use of various apps, which can serve to optimize efficiency in flight. One such example is the ‘in time weather solutions’, which helps pilots identify inclement weather, thereby letting them plan a route around trouble spots in advance, rather than being subjected to last-minute diversions.

What does the future of short-haul flight look like?

As more airlines take up the mantle of providing in-flight connectivity, passengers will come to expect a digital experience in the air that is no different from that on the ground. The scope for development from there on is endless.

Inmarsat EAN device
The EAN device installed on an aircraft. Photo: Inmarsat

An example of future potential would be ‘just in time’ fulfillment. Imagine a family setting off on holiday, who realize they’ve forgotten something essential, perhaps sun cream or bathing suits. Using the EAN, they could order the items while traveling to their destination and have them delivered to their hotel by the time they arrive. The family enjoys the convenience and a stress-free holiday, while the airline can collect ancillary revenue from the purchase.

This is just the tip of the iceberg for the potential of IFEC to improve our travel experience. From more personalization to customer-specific rewards, the potential for PaxEx to be immeasurably improved is there for the taking. We’re looking forward to seeing the EAN rolled out to more airlines around Europe, and to being connected more often when we’re traveling short-haul.

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