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Innovations take flight


How airlines are using the latest technological developments to improve operations and the passenger experience

Over the last few years inflight connectivity (enabled using systems such as Inmarsat’s GX Aviation, EAN and SB-S) has helped airlines improve their operating margins considerably. It has done this by providing a number of new revenue streams and enabling a variety of cost savings. According to the LSE’s 2017 Sky High Economics report, broadband access and connectivity dependent services could deliver an extra $30bn of revenue to airlines every year by 2035.

If new revenue streams are one part of the solution, lower costs are another. Better connectivity means more efficient maintenance, improved turnaround times and even reduced fuel costs and flying times via better, real-time weather information. These operational efficiencies are key components of SB-S. Indeed, this next-generation satcom platform sets new standards for operational and safety communications.

This is no idle boast. According to Sky High Economics, “Optimised flight planning and other efficiencies – made possible by IFC solutions such as SB-S – have been estimated to yield 2-3% fuel savings per flight, resulting in [savings of] US$1.3bn to US$3.9bn.” Finally, better connectivity has made airlines more attractive and responsive and improved the carrier-customer relationship.

What does the second wave of connectivity hold?

All this is the first wave of inflight connectivity, but we’re now looking ahead at the second. This will involve a raft of newer technologies and applications. So, what can we expect?

The first new technology is 5G. This has already launched on the ground in Korea and will roll out widely around the world in the next couple of years. What it will deliver is much faster speeds and lower latency. This means interactions will be real-time rather than the small lag we’re used to on, say, mobile devices when we refresh social media or play games online. 5G will also be the key to the development of the Internet of Things which will deliver embedded smartness and sensors in many everyday objects and change the way we interact with our environment.

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According to MIT, “5G is a technological paradigm shift, akin to the shift from typewriter to computer… [it] will become the underlying fabric of an entire ecosystem of fully connected intelligent sensors and devices...It will create a different economy.”

5G will be monumental. But we are living in an era of great, ever-accelerating change driven not only by new technologies but by the way these technologies will come together to work in increasingly complex systems. Perhaps the single most important technology here is Artificial Intelligence (AI). According to the information service Research and Markets, AI in aviation was worth $152.4m in 2018 but should be worth $2.2bn by 2025.

AI is likely to make its effects felt everywhere. On the operational side, examples include predictive maintenance, use of AI to create better insights and savings from data and reduced congestion at airports. From a passenger point of view, AI is likely to first manifest itself in areas like sophisticated chatbots offering support (airlines such as Icelandair and Lufthansa already offer basic chatbots) and vastly improved translation technology.

AI will also improve voice recognition technology. This is already changing the way carriers interact with their passengers; Virgin Australia has launched voice check-in through Amazon Alexa, as has United Airlines (via Google Assistant). What AI will do is massively expand the capabilities of voice, perhaps to the point where a voice interface becomes most people’s default.

Blockchain, despite the hype and its association with cryptocurrencies, holds out enormous promise. Where this technology really shines is that it provides a way of conducting transactions securely without using intermediaries like banks. This has huge implications in areas ranging from supply chains to contracts to databases.

For airlines, it could mean easier, more secure ticket sales and a greater range of places that can sell them. It could also make the points in loyalty schemes update almost instantly and mean they can be spent far more widely. Singapore Airlines has already launched a “blockchain-based airline loyalty digital wallet.” Blockchain is extremely secure and, in a world, where vast data breaches have become the norm, it could ensure customer data is kept far more safely.

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Virtual training, virtual entertainment

Finally, we have AR and VR (augmented reality and virtual reality). These have been around for quite a long time and feel like they have yet to deliver on their promise. However, the good news is that airlines may be where they finally become a mainstream proposition.

In 2019, Inflight VR claimed to have introduced the first inflight virtual reality entertainment solution that did not cause motion sickness. Iberia has trialled this both on the ground and in the air. Others such as Alaska and Emirates are also testing VR. Like ordinary inflight entertainment, VR platforms will be able to host everything from airline content to games to third party applications.

Air New Zealand recently launched a “spatial computing board game” which takes players through the country’s main tourist attractions. This is not currently inflight. But, as VR and AR move on to planes, we could see more destination-specific content that entertains passengers during long flights and generates new revenues. While the most obvious applications of AR and VR are in entertainment, they will also help reduce the costs of pilot and crew training. And as the technology develops, business passengers could also benefit from the privacy that VR offers – working on important documents viewed through a VR headset.

These new technologies represent the next wave of disruption for airlines. Not only will they mean huge changes, but they will mean that these changes happen faster and often involve multiple technologies (for example, systems using AI and blockchain and 5G) working together.

For the most part, these new technologies are not here yet in the aviation industry, but over the next few years they will start to arrive and they will largely build on inflight connectivity already in place today with Inmarsat’s GX, EAN and SB-S. The airlines which are ready take advantage of them will find themselves best placed to improve their margins, attract more customers and meet the challenges of flying in the 21st century.