Has inflight connectivity become an expectation? Earlier this year airline comparison site Routehappy released its annual “Global State of In-flight Wi-Fi” report, which indicated that 2015 was a game-changer for the service. More airlines than ever now offer airborne Internet, and are upping the ante with faster speeds and more coverage. Today, 60 carriers offer Wi-Fi in most regions. Naturally, with its relatively cheap and reliable air-to-ground services, the U.S. leads the pack offering connectivity on 78 percent of all available seat miles (ASM).
The good news for Asian fliers is that many more non-U.S. airlines, including Garuda and Japan Airlines, now provide superior connectivity. Several carriers are already upgrading aircraft to their third generation of in-flight Wi-Fi. New York to Dubai offers the strongest overall service, while, perhaps surprisingly, London to Hong Kong is the least well connected.
So how are Asian locals stacking up? Singapore Airlines’ (Stand CS26) passengers will soon have access to high-speed Internet, thanks to Honeywell’s JetWave satellite communications hardware, working with Inmarsat Aviation’s Global Xpress (GX) network, provided by SITA OnAir. Honeywell (Stand G39) claims that the system will give passengers an in-flight experience that is “close to the capability they have in their home.” GX is slated to provide aircraft with data rates of up to 50Mbps.
Passengers should be able to do everything from accessing real-time social media updates and emails to live-streaming TV, from virtually anywhere in the world, over both land and sea, says Honeywell. Installation of the first system is scheduled for the second half of 2016 on the carrier’s Boeing 777-300ER aircraft, followed by its Airbus A380-800s and A350-900s.
Other airlines that have opted for JetWave include Vietnam Airlines and Lufthansa. Honeywell also signed a memorandum of understanding with Air China last year to begin testing GX on the airline’s A330 aircraft.
Singapore tends to be at the forefront of IFEC offerings. Last September it partnered with Panasonic to launch the industry’s first companion mobile app that spans across the entire journey. Passengers can enter their flight details before they fly and review the upcoming entertainment choices for their trip.
Among other services, they can watch movie trailers, read reviews and synopses, and even save films, TV shows, and other media that they want to view on their flight. Once onboard, they synchronize their mobile device to their seat and call up their preferred entertainment or review the entire media library. The app effectively then becomes a second screen, where they can access the IFE library, or watch the moving map.
Chinese airlines are feeling the pressure to compete internationally. In December Los Angeles-based Global Eagle Entertainment (GEE) announced a milestone deal with China’s HNA Group to launch its Airconnect inflight connectivity system in the third quarter of this year aboard five of Hainan Airlines’ 737NG aircraft, and then a further five A320s operated by HNA subsidiary Beijing Capital Airlines. This will provide passengers with the usual array of services, including Internet access, online shopping and payment, and live television, plus connecting gate information, weather, and flight tracking. GEE will also manage the supplemental type certification process and provide ongoing technical support.
Meanwhile Asia’s second largest carrier China Eastern Airlines was the first Chinese airline to launch international inflight connectivity, using Panasonic’s eXConnect Ku-band system on the airline’s newest Boeing 777-300ER widebodies on routes between New York, San Francisco, Shanghai, Toronto and Vancouver. It is also offering WiFi on domestic services between Shanghai and Beijing, Chongqing, Guangzhou, and Kunming.
Airlines are treading carefully, but China is evidently relaxing some of its more stringent rules to cater to international traffic. Last year Panasonic won a license to offer connectivity in Chinese airspace. Prior to that, carriers had to turn off connectivity when they entered its territory.
A delicate issue, however, is one of content and the list of banned websites under the “Great Firewall” of China (known within the country as the Golden Shield project). The firewall largely bans Western social media sites, such as Facebook, Gmail, Instagram, Snapchat and Twitter, as well as some media organizations.
But foreign players are soldiering on and gaining wins in the region overall. GEE also offers its WISE (wireless IFE software) platform, which has proved popular in the Philippines. Both the national carrier and low-cost Cebu Pacific have installed the system on their Airbus A330s.
WISE, along with connectivity provider OnAir, offers the software backbone for the carrier’s wireless IFE as well as a complete content line-up including movies and TV shows approved for streaming with digital rights management by major Hollywood studios.
There are some surprises, though. Over in Hong Kong, Cathay Pacific’s feet-dragging on offering in-flight connectivity seems odd, given its position as a premium carrier. It is finally trialing such services this year on its Airbus A350 fleet using Panasonic’s Ku band service. In Malaysia, AirAsia only offers a light download limit of 3MB per passenger, encouraging fliers to use chat and text apps, rather than images and web pages.
Most are not so cautious. Sri Lankan Airlines, for example, has opted for Thales’ (Stand F23) InFlyt Experience, becoming launch customer for the OEM’s Avant system, with an application delivering live news and weather. The live news and weather includes news articles, complete with images, plus five-day weather forecasts for 50 selected cities.
Today, international carriers offer IFEC on 24 percent of their ASMs. You never know, by the time Singapore 2018 rolls around, you could be reading this publication electronically en route to the show!