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Taking flight again: Is connectivity key to the future flying experience?

By Michelle Muñoz-Talcott, Senior Director, Marketing, Global Enterprise and Mobility at Viasat

 The effects of the COVID-19 pandemic have been felt across the world, and the airline industry felt it even more than most, with a 95% drop in air traffic reported in some countries during initial lockdowns. This massive drop was only temporary, and as we have seen some borders open back up air travel has increased. However, research by Statista showed that global air traffic still down almost 44% in January 2021. It is clear that the recovery is going to take some time. Airlines have seen their income squeezed because traditional revenue streams – including duty free sales and food and drink services – aren’t available due to health and safety restrictions. There are, however, still ways airlines can adapt, as well as provide additional services to raise revenues and entice customers back on board.

Wide-ranging impact

 While there have been some promising signs, with passengers showing they were willing to travel again when rules were relaxed last summer, the experience of flying has undoubtedly been impacted for the long-term. Waits during boarding are longer due to temperature checks, passengers and airline personnel now must wear face masks, and planes are now decontaminated daily.

Many of these measures will contribute to making air travel safer, which in itself is an important way to tempt customers back. In addition, there have been positive developments from a governmental standpoint, with some countries creating air bridges that allow passengers to fly without quarantines – though as we have already seen, they can change at very short notice. Although customers will not be asked if they want ‘ice and a slice’ for the foreseeable future due to reduced in-cabin service, the experience of flying can still be enhanced through other services such as improved in-flight connectivity.

Taking things online

 During this period of lockdowns and limited travel, digital media, streaming, video calls and remote working have all become the norm. Airlines should look to expand that experience to the skies. Passengers have become used to staying in touch 24/7, some might even find it odd not to be connected to the internet after relying on it so much. In addition, being able to check-in with family as needed, especially given the ongoing pandemic, is something travellers and their families are all likely to appreciate

Over the past few years an increasing number of airlines have begun offering in-flight internet connectivity to passengers. Offering paid for connectivity could prove to be one of the few revenue streams that airlines can make use of – while premium airlines might choose to offer it for free to differentiate themselves from budget rivals. The speed of in-flight connectivity has also increased over the years, from being able to download e-mail and use instant messaging to allowing passengers to remain connected with loved ones through video chat or enjoy streaming services such as Netflix. What’s more, this connectivity isn’t just about keeping passengers online 24/7. It also improves the experience in other ways.

For instance, ‘touchless digitalisation’ through apps and smart devices enabling allows passengers to communicate with a flight attendant through an app, reducing aisle trips and physical contact, allowing the airline to deliver great customer service, and enhancing safety. In addition, this approach enables real time updates on aircraft cleanliness and serves as a communication link between the crew, airline, and passenger.

Beyond airlines

 It’s not just airlines that can make use of connectivity. Business jets are becoming more popular for wealthy flyers. For this demographic, connectivity has become increasingly important, both for personal use but also to ensure they can conduct business whilst travelling. Providing connectivity on business jets adds to the premium experience for those that use them. Technology has developed so much, that there is an expectation to be able to stream 4k video to multiple devices and conduct important video calls without any issues. Given the popularity of connectivity on commercial airlines, in-flight connectivity on business jets is no longer a luxury, but a requirement.

Getting a head start

 For the foreseeable future, airlines face increased pressure to remain both financially viable and entice customers back on board. There is no magic bullet: safety will, as it always has been, be a divisive issue. Now planes not only have to be as safe as possible from an air-worthiness perspective, but also must provide a safe cabin environment that is ‘COVID secure’. Beyond this focus on safety, airlines need to seriously think about the experience for passengers on-board. Being able to offer premium services or additional revenue streams will be an important part of the puzzle, and in-flight connectivity that provides increased safety through accessing on-board services or assistance touchlessly is one way of doing so. What’s more, even when things do return to normal, connectivity is likely to remain a key expectation from flyers – and one airlines should capitalise on now.