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Connectivity pivotal to post-COVID passenger experience

From enhancing resilience and boosting ancillary revenue to maximising operational efficiencies and sustainability, connected services can act as a catalyst for passenger confidence and a profitable recovery.

In a permanently shifting world, where change is the only constant, how should airlines – and the wider aviation industry – look to shape and enhance what is commonly known as the passenger experience? Not only now and in the immediate future, while we are still living with COVID-19, but in years to come?

The recent green shoots of improved passenger demand and recovery are encouraging. Airlines are progressively increasing their number of flights and destinations. But without the use of crystal ball, how many of us really know what the flying experience for passengers in a post-COVID world will look like? Will the necessary changes enforced by the pandemic – cabin crew and passengers wearing masks or shields; less cabin interaction; more safety checks – be a permanent fixture?

One thing that we are confident in stating, however, is that connectivity, and the connected services that rely on consistent, resilient and seamless high-speed inflight broadband, can not only support passenger confidence, but it is central to the safe, sustainable and profitable recovery of the aviation industry.

It’s a point underlined by Inmarsat Aviation’s Regional Vice President of Europe, Eric Plantaz, who believes digital transformation, supported by the European Aviation Network (EAN) and GX Aviation inflight broadband solutions, is vital to the new post-COVID-19 passenger journey.

“EAN and GX can both support the various post-COVID initiatives and precautionary measures,” he says, “and allow global air travel to resume safely, digitally, efficiently and profitably, by leveraging inflight broadband connectivity as the new norm.”

Digitalisation continues to rise in importance

The events of the last few months have made the significance of digital technology abundantly clear. In a wish to stay connected, our reliance upon connectivity has both deepened and accelerated – in fact, analysts believe that during lockdown we witnessed three years’-worth of digital transformation in just three months.

This is just as applicable in the air. Plantaz says the pandemic has heightened the importance of connectivity to passengers.

“With less interaction on board, passengers are looking for other ways to entertain themselves with their personal devices,” he explains. “In addition, staying in touch with news and contacts on the ground helps manage passenger anxiety.”

This is certainly what we’re witnessing. Just looking at EAN usage, absolute total data consumption was double in August compared to pre-COVID January. In the same month there were two-and-a-half times more sessions per flight than January. In terms of enhancing the passenger experience airlines offering robust and predictable connectivity enable a degree of reassurance that flyers clearly like.

So while airlines might understandably be reluctant to make near-term investments, now is the time to initiate or accelerate digitalisation. Moreover, these programmes not only act as a catalyst for consumer confidence, they’re also a crucial way to maximise the profitability of flights via ancillary revenue streams and exploiting operational efficiencies.

Connectivity an enabler for aviation’s safe return

Unsurprisingly, one of the principal obstacles to overcome before passengers return en masse is convincing fliers of their safety in the cabin. Connected digital technologies can help provide this confidence, allay concerns and demonstrate that airlines appreciate this ‘new normal’.

Providing information can take the form of:

  • COVID tracking apps for the country of destination and while onboard
  • Onboard communication of country-specific entry regulations and hygiene requirements at destination
  • Real-time travel updates and info (news, immigration info, connection status, change of gate, etc. at destination)
  • Onboard signalling of COVID 19-symptomatic passengers, and remote medical assistance via video link (telemedicine) for diagnosis and support

Additional ways in which connectivity can instil passenger confidence include minimising the number of interactions while onboard the plane via:

So from robust traceability to the intensification of biometric check-ins and widespread contactless interactions, connectivity can help assuage anxious passengers.

“We all recognise what a stressful event COVID-19 has been. Some passengers are already anxious when boarding a plane. These apps and concepts can help alleviate this,” Plantaz concurs. “Being connected through WhatsApp or Messenger to family and friends while flying also helps to reduce fear and anxiety.”

This also backed up by the industry survey that Inmarsat carried out as part of the FlightPlan broadcast event at the beginning of lockdown. More than 500 aviation professionals took part and respondents overwhelmingly believed that technologies such as data analytics, biometrics, Artificial Intelligence (AI) and the Internet of Things (IoT) will play a substantial role in returning the industry to future profitable growth.

An enhanced passenger experience

The safety regulations that airlines must abide by have unfortunately, but necessarily, resulted in a sterile and rigid cabin environment. Connectivity can help offset passenger boredom.

Alongside enabling a best-in-class inflight broadband experience, Plantaz points out other ways connectivity services can enhance passenger experience.  “The removal of inflight magazines, for example, can be compensated for by providing digital access to these magazines,” he says. 

Elsewhere, connectivity solutions such as EAN – the fastest and most sophisticated inflight broadband in Europe – help unlock the potential of online gaming. And with the continued rise of online shopping accelerating during lockdown, those airlines that offer a modern take on inflight retail that is no longer restricted by what goods can be physically kept on a plane will see significant revenue opportunities.

Connectivity – and more specifically the rich data that flows from digitalisation – also enables the delivery of more personalised services. Something that rises in importance for younger flyers who eschew traditional airline loyalty schemes in favour of those carriers that best meet their digital demands.

Operational efficiencies underpin a sustainable recovery

Connected operations also have the potential to cut operational costs thus increasing the profitability of each flight.

Before COVID, green initiatives were increasing in importance as aviation got to grips with the issue of sustainability. Post-COVID these will rise in significance. This has already been seen in some of the conditions attached to various government bailouts and financial support given to airlines – for example one of the stipulations given to Air France in return for its €7bn state bailout was to go greener. An IP-enabled aircraft can help save 1% of global fuel burn because of better weather intelligence, smarter route planning and more intelligent communication with Air Traffic Management.

“Reducing fuel burn certainly helps the environment, but it also helps airlines profits,” says Plantaz. “And in today’s challenging environment, every cent counts. Many airlines are looking at digitising their operations to reveal opportunities to cut waste and introduce automation.”

Crew communication inflight with the engineering or supply chain teams on the ground can help plan ahead for speedier turnarounds, which in turn can reduce waiting times for replacement parts or missing inventory. This will also help to offset the problem of slower turnarounds due to longer and deeper cleaning of planes because of COVID precautions.

Digital transformation is at the heart of passenger experience

A digital-led approach is key to aviation’s continued safe restart and the industry’s sustained and profitable recovery.

Today’s digitally-focused, always-on passengers expect an inflight broadband experience comparable to that they enjoy on the ground. For airlines a resilient and reliable high-speed service is a significant brand differentiator and provides a critical competitive advantage. Now is the time to act.