Aviation Vertical Markets

Inflight connectivity in a post-covid world

While the aviation industry has been badly hit by the Covid pandemic, the vaccination roll-out that has been kicked off by many countries around the world gives us some hope that we might get back to some normality and see an increased need for inflight connectivity, says Dave Bijur of Intelsat.

The industry is gearing up for a new season as vaccine rollouts give people greater confidence to travel. New routes are being operated, airlines are adding more flights and, for the first time since the pandemic began, we’ve seen more customers purchasing our monthly subscription than have cancelled it. With Boeing anticipating demand for 2,945 new aircraft in the Middle East over the next two decades, the future seems brighter.

As lockdowns were imposed around the world, people’s reliance on digital technology skyrocketed, and global internet traffic surged by nearly 40% between February and April 2020, according to the International Energy Agency (IEA). When it comes to connectivity, differences between generations have been dramatically reduced since the beginning of the pandemic, expectations have increased, and mobility is no longer seen as an obstacle. That’s a trend we expect will continue with the deployment of 5G networks that will transform the way we connect – even during a flight. Passengers expect the same level of connectivity onboard a plane that they have in their living-room, and airlines have to adapt to respond to the needs of the new digital adepts we have become accustomed to over the past 12 months in order to increase passenger satisfaction.

Anticipating these evolutions, Intelsat recently conducted a survey on Inflight Connectivity (IFC) to understand how inflight internet demand and service requirements have changed in light of the pandemic. The answers given by airlines, service providers, and Original Equipment Manufacturers (OEMs) reflect our own analysis: IFC is seen as a way to increase brand loyalty while saving on OPEX. 65% of respondents think that there will be an increase in the number of inflight passengers who expect to be connected, while 85% believe that “quality” inflight connectivity is a key differentiating factor for airlines. Remote, work-based applications such as video conferencing, cloud computing and VPN onboard are expected to become part of the onboard experience. However, respondents identified challenges that could prevent passengers from taking full advantage of these trends: prices and poor connection. But, with consumer demand for in-flight internet expected to grow by double digits (10%) annually over the next decade, airlines will be eager to develop modern ways to differentiate themselves and attract loyal customers.

Advancing digitalised operations will give operators the agility they need to address these new challenges but only if leveraged through an integrated, connectivity-ready ecosystem.

Satellite solutions help respond to these challenges by enabling robust inflight connectivity, even when flying at full capacity over the busiest airport hubs and along the most congested routes.

“Passengers expect the same level of connectivity onboard a plane that they have in their living room” – Dave Bijur, Intelsat Commercial Aviation

Next-generation, software-defined satellites will enable to dynamically adjust capacity configurations and utilisation while the satellites are in orbit, significantly improving the economic equation for customers, and making networks even more flexible, accessible, relevant and cost-effective for them. The integration of the right mix of technologies will enhance networks and power the new managed services brought to market for customers.

While there are some discussions on the performance of Ku- and Ka-bands, their availability and use to the aviation industry, the truth is that it has no impact on passengers – who only care about a reliable connection during their flight – or airlines, who typically pay the bills. Global constellations of Ku-band satellites combine wide-beam and spot-beam, ensuring a depth of coverage that provides end users with resiliency and redundancy unavailable in Ka-band. Switching between these Ku-band options to direct capacity to where it is needed most is possible because of the open architecture compatibility between Ku-band HTS and wide-beam satellites – an unequivocal advantage for airlines whose passengers expect reliable inflight connectivity at all times.

The way forward, to respond to the growing demand and take advantage of augmentation opportunities, is to rely on multi-orbit constellations. Only an aeronautical solution that has the ability to track and operate with both GEO and LEO satellites will enable airlines to leverage these opportunities. Also, a new class of powerful software-defined satellites that will launch over the next few years will allow capacity to be instantaneously reconfigured and repositioned in response to ever-changing customer demand.

Space innovation such as in-orbit servicing technology and Mission Extension Vehicles (MEV) also serves as a cost-effective tool to repair and extend the life of otherwise healthy, high-performing satellites. These mission-extension services represent a smart and efficient way to maintain existing fleets, preserve customers uninterrupted experience and free up even more resources to invest in advanced, next-generation technologies. The types of missions these satellite-preserving vehicles may be capable of managing in the near future could open many possibilities. Already, MEV-1 has enabled Intelsat 901 to return to service in April 2020, while Intelsat 10-02 will soon get an extra five years of life thanks to MEV-2.

However, innovation cannot only be space-based. Continued investment and development should also include higher-capacity servers, more efficient and higher-throughput modems, as well as more optimal antennas.

With in-flight connectivity rapidly becoming a must-have for passengers for operational optimisation, ensuring connectivity when and where airlines need it is of critical importance. Satellite innovations, combined with market leading terminal technology, ensure that airlines no longer need to make trade-offs on speed, reliability, availability, or coverage for in-flight internet.