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Wi-fly into the future of the connected skies

Recently, British Airways’ (BA) made the ground-breaking announcement that it would be investing GB£30m across 118 of its aircraft. The cash injection is to fund the retrofit of Gogo’s next-generation satellite technology into a range of its long-haul aircraft including Airbus A380s, Boeing 777s, 747s, and 787s, putting the technology in the hands of BA passengers from early next year.

While BA is not the first to implement such a scheme, this landmark deal will be a huge leap forward for the technology. International Airlines Group (IAG), BA’s parent company, claims that 90% of its long-haul fleet will be up and running with the Gogo technology by 2019.

The question of availability on medium and short-haul flights still remains, however, as coverage on short-haul European flights in particular is woefully low. But there is clear demand across the board and this is certainly a step in the right direction. Over the next few decades we will surely see seamless connectivity across all fleets for the entire duration of any journey.

But is the proliferation of such technology as much of an opportunity for airlines as it is for passengers?

Monetizing the skies
There is no doubt that the announcement from BA is a fantastic step forward in the aerospace industry’s quest for truly connected travel in the skies. It is a prime example of how technological advancements can drive benefits for both carriers and their passengers alike: customers are provided with the seamless digitally-led travel experience that they crave, and airlines open up new revenue streams through premium offerings.

I’ll be particularly interested to see how BA monetizes its new internet services. Identifying the viable commercial models is the key challenge that sets the direction of the industry on these initiatives. One hope for operators is that opening up paid-for offerings to passengers, such as movies, TV series and other premium content via a subscription model would make the whole plan worth investing in. However, operators cannot expect to make money without offering some basic connectivity for free so that passengers get used to it before opening their wallets.

Flight app
We are also starting to see a rise in custom-built airline apps. These applications link up to passengers’ individual in-flight entertainment systems, enabling them to interact with the aircraft via their personal electronic devices.

Once an airline app is in place, the integration possibilities are endless. At present, some carriers only allow customers to interact with entertainment platforms, essentially using their tablet or smartphone as a second screen. But others offer a much deeper integration into the in-flight experience, via the passenger’s personal device. The apps can be used for things like ordering food and drinks and calling the attention of a flight attendant. Run via a subscription-based model, they also provide opportunities for airlines to generate further revenue and would benefit hugely from the integration of high-speed wi-fi enabled services.

A cloud of security
This project with BA will, however, be far from ‘plane sailing’, and the infrastructure in place will have to manage huge bandwidth increases, as such services have historically proven to be extremely difficult to install.

While stepping up bandwidth is the first step, any discussion of wi-fi in the skies will also raise significant security concerns. For airlines, access can also mean a risk of manipulation, either from the ground or within the aircraft itself. Inflight wi-fi, and the notion of connectivity can leave aircraft vulnerable to hacking. It is paramount that network and data safety are kept front of mind, as IAG embarks on this exciting and potentially transformative modernization project.

Unfettered connectivity opens up possibility for security risks, not just for aircraft systems, but also for other passengers if the necessary security framework is not in place before opening up the bandwidth.

In order to ensure a secure on-board browsing experience, the most important measure airlines need to take is to separate the flight systems network from the passenger network. There have been instances of encroachments into the flight systems in the past and every operator should be absolutely sure that they are protected. Alongside this, airlines must have a second level of precaution in the form of controlled environmental measures to restrict users from venturing into other passenger’s online privacy.

In spite of this, there will always be unknown vulnerabilities that can only be unearthed by the shrewdest of hackers, and operators must be ready to respond quickly to such instances.

As a whole the aerospace industry is yet to reach the nirvana state of full wi-fi connectivity at 30,000ft. However, this deal is a great step in the right direction, and it will be fascinating to watch it rollout over the course of next year. There will certainly be barriers along the way, but there is a clear demand from a consumer standpoint and airlines are beginning to realize the lucrative benefits that could be harnessed from full inflight connectivity.

 

19 May 2016

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