Emirates, the Dubai-based airline, has long been one of the pioneers of in-flight connectivity (IFC), offering the service before many other airlines. With passenger numbers now returning to almost pre-pandemic levels, the aviation industry’s demand for connectivity is at an all-time high. At the same time, with a number of Low-Earth Orbit (LEO) constellations coming online, airlines such as Emirates have more choice than ever when picking their satellite or solutions provider.
Patrick Brannelly, senior vice president of Retail, IFE, & Connectivity at Emirates, talks to Via Satellite about how he sees the future for IFC and what is next as Emirates continues to try and lead the way in this area. He also talks about how an airline like Emirates views the latest satellite technologies and how these could impact buying decisions going forward.
Brannelly: Emirates has always embraced and driven innovation and deployment of new technologies, but LEO deployment isn’t quite ready for the launch of this fleet. That said, we are more than confident that Inmarsat’s significant current and future capacity and satellite coverage roadmap will meet Emirates passenger needs for our A350 fleet. The emerging LEO options look exciting and promise a potential paradigm shift in terms of in-flight connectivity but are yet to be proven technically and commercially in commercial aviation on wide-bodied aircraft. In-flight communications are incredibly complex and historically it has taken years to iron out the wrinkles in each generation of technology, which has proven painful to the customer experience.
VIA SATELLITE: Where is Emirates regarding its connectivity strategy, and what do you see as the next phase of this strategy?
Brannelly: Connectivity remains vital for our customers; we’ve seen a shift from laptop usage to mobile, from internet browsing to app usage, from CC payment to payment by digital wallets. We see our customers consuming more data each month. The next big phase is clearly going to be how the airline industry exploits the increasing bandwidth available from both GEO or LEO but, at the moment, we are very focused on improving the passenger connectivity experience, making it more seamless, more reliable, and less clunky.
VIA SATELLITE: Has Emirates scaled back its connectivity plans as a result of everything we have seen over the last two to three years? Or is investing in connectivity more important than ever?
Brannelly: In-flight connectivity is more important than ever! Simple. We are investing heavily in enhancing Emirates’ product experience and not scaling back at all. We are seeing Wi-Fi usage on shorter routes increase each month suggesting an ever-increasing intolerance to being disconnected for even short periods.
VIA SATELLITE: We have seen Intelsat acquire Gogo. Viasat and Inmarsat are on the cusp of their merger, too. Is this, overall, good or bad for the IFC market?
Brannelly: Consolidation is inevitable in any business, often to achieve business viability rather than a dominant monopoly. Government competition authorities are diligent to prevent it or reshape it where necessary. At the core of all the ‘options’ available are just a few core technologies. It is not too hard to understand the pros and cons of each and the need to be balanced with the individual needs and limitations of each customer.
VIA SATELLITE: Starlink is now signing deals with commercial airlines, and OneWeb may not be far behind either. Do you think these LEO providers will shake up the market?
Brannelly: Competition is always good, and the connectivity market has been consistently shaken for the past 20 years. The benefits need to go way beyond reduced latency, which is of marginal importance for many applications.
VIA SATELLITE: What levels of capacity will you need going forward? Are we going to see exponential increases in the amount of capacity you need?
Brannelly: You’ve asked the core question that has never really been explored or answered in our industry. What is the unconstrained bandwidth demand per hundred pax on an aircraft? What is then the end-to-end network capability needed to deliver that bandwidth to large fleets of wide-bodied aircraft under a beam and then the economic viability of this, considering the non-aviation demands on the same satellite beam? I believe there is constraint also with legacy onboard Wi-Fi networks which were not designed to meet the customer and crew device count we see today. The only thing we know is that bandwidth consumption and demand are still growing and have not leveled off yet.
VIA SATELLITE: At CES this year, Delta announced that it was going to offer free Wi-Fi both domestically and internationally over the next two years. Is this where the industry is heading?
Brannelly: Emirates was probably the first airline to offer free connectivity to all passengers, many years back. Today all our Skywards FFP members can connect for free. That said, many customers suggest mirroring what hotels have done with a basic, free heavily throttled or shaped plan and a premium paid unthrottled plan so serious users can pay for a near-on-ground experience.
VIA SATELLITE: What kinds of new apps/services are you looking to develop based on connectivity?
Brannelly: We started using aircraft connectivity for onboard credit card payment approvals three or four years back and today over 85% of credit card sales are approved in real-time. Our cabin crew devices are more connected so we can support them, if needed, in real-time during the flight. The Emirates App connects to the IFE so that customers can choose what to watch before the flight and then link to the seat to enjoy their playlist. Today—if your flight misses a connection and we rebook you, it’ll show in the Emirates App before you land—so no need to ask the cabin crew. We have many more plans to exploit aircraft connectivity that will launch shortly and over the coming years. We’ve only scratched the surface.
VIA SATELLITE: What are your overall thoughts on the state of the IFC market?
Brannelly: Emirates launched phones and fax back in 1993-4, then we traversed through Data 2, Data 3, Swift64, SBB, Ku, and now Ka… It’s been a rollercoaster of discovery. The reality is customer expectations have always kept ahead of what’s deliverable in-flight, as ground internet has also evolved from dial-up to fiber and 5G. This customer expectation gap has resulted in airlines spending hundreds of millions but not delivering high customer satisfaction. The trend now is for the market, in terms of technology and what’s viable in terms of airline customer experience, will mature now and I expect it to settle soon. The IFC industry has to match or exceed customer expectations with what’s possible—stop over-promising.