After more than two years of largely locked-down life in Melbourne, Australia, Valour’s co-founder Daniel Welch looks ahead to the upcoming Aircraft Interiors Expo. Momentous both on a personal level – with a first international trip since 2019 – and an industry-wide level as IFEC and cabin technology specialists head back to their spiritual home – Hamburg.
It’s time to get back out there. A decision made on the back of border restrictions in Australia being lifted and having collated enough positive and constructive feedback from colleagues and industry peers that have ventured to the many in-person events which have already taken place, globally.
Aircraft Interiors Expo (AIX) in Hamburg is an event we all tend to look forward to. For most of the Valour team, it’s right on our doorstep, and there’s typically strong attendance from many of our clients in the IFEC arena. I guess the karaoke bars and beer halls deserve a mention too, although I’ve not given that much thought (“Larger than Life” by the Backstreet Boys, if you’re asking).
This year, I’ll be joined by David Whelan and Kerri Agnew from the Valour team and we’re anticipating AIX 2022 to be a great event. With the event approaching rapidly, we wanted to add to the hype by capturing our top 10 IFEC-related themes to look out for from those exhibiting. The first five predictions from me focus on the connectivity side, before IFE specialist David add his take on the major themes to keep an eye on.
Part I: In-Flight Connectivity
Our top 5 predictions for connectivity-related developments are:
Having long been the subject of discussion, debate and speculation amongst airlines, vendors, and industry media, LEO will undoubtedly be a core feature of this year’s show. Last month’s announcement by Hawaiian Airlines, in which the carrier publicised its intention to install IFC hardware and service from SpaceX on aircraft beginning in 2023. This has transitioned LEO from “coming soon” to “here now”.
If the recent Satellite Show and European Business Aviation Convention & Exhibition (EBACE) events are anything to go by, LEO (and MEO) will feature on many of the booths at AIX.
We’ll be looking for more announcements from the likes of OneWeb and existing IFC service providers, firming up core elements around the go-to-market strategy – notably partnerships and technology. The key question is whether it’s still too soon for more airline deals? We know better than to say no.
Riding on the coattails of the momentum around LEO, ESAs have been another prominent feature at satellite-related events so far this year. It is well known that commercial aviation represents a challenging vertical for antenna manufacturers and the reality is that we may still be a year or more away from seeing an ESA feature as part of a live IFC service. Nevertheless, we’ve seen more vendors enter the development race, notably Stellar Blu (with Ball Aerospace) and Hughes, while others are now at the stage of exhibiting hardware and/or robust specification sheets as opposed to inviting prospective customers to use their imagination. This is certainly symbolic of progress being made.
ESA vendors took a notable share of the limelight at EBACE, with Hughes’ ESA selected to power Gogo’s new LEO service and Satcom Direct reaffirming its intent to leverage QEST’s new low-profile solution. We’re now hoping to see more of the same from the commercial sector.
In response to the obvious disruption posed by new NGSO services, incumbent IFC service providers have been forced to act. In most cases, the act has been for vendors to embrace LEO and MEO, announcing plans to build multi-orbit networks which deliver redundancy and quality of service. Two prime examples are Inmarsat, which unveiled Orchestra in July 2021, and Anuvu which has partnered with Telesat on its own multi-orbit network.
As major players in the IFC sector, I’m hoping to see Intelsat or Panasonic Avionics use AIX as a platform to unveil plans for transitioning airline customers to multi-orbit networks. The former is arguably well positioned to so thanks to the Thinkom 2Ku solution already being LEO-ready. Could we see it go down the same path as Gogo?
There is now greater scrutiny than ever before around the way IFC is positioned to passengers, driven by increased demand from airlines and an evolution of the competitive environment around the connectivity pipe.
Software specialists, such as Axinom, Black Swan, Display Interactive and Reaktor are continuing to advance the design and functionality of the in-flight portal, forcing IFC vendors to improve out-of-the-box services. The desired outcome is to generate marginal gains in both take-up of IFC and ancillary revenues. We’re hoping to hear more about some of the latest advances to the customer portal at the show.
While truly interoperable hardware across the IFC stack is still many years away, progress has been made around encouraging agnostic design. In October 2020, for example, the Seamless Air Alliance published Seamless Release 2.0, a blueprint for IFC vendors to manufacture interoperable components within the IFC stack, labelled “OpenIFC”.
Beyond this, Kontron has unveiled a dual-modem MODMAN which gives airlines greater choice in the form of roaming across multiple networks. Similarly, more servers on the market today have agnostic middleware, giving airlines increased freedom to install and manage third-party applications. We’re at the early stages of this journey to interoperability, but it’s happening and we’ll be putting 5 euros behind the bar every time we hear “open architecture” in Hamburg this year.
Part II: In-Flight Entertainment
Shifting the focus to IFE and passenger engagement, our five remaining predictions for major themes are:
With traveller numbers not expected to return to pre-COVID levels until the middle of the decade, airlines need to do all they can to engage the passengers they do have. It’s not surprising then that the pandemic has intensified the focus around ancillary revenue generation. There is a myriad of opportunities in ecommerce out there, and a wide range of vendors large and small with solutions which do not just help airlines make money, but also increase passenger satisfaction. This is likely to be one of the major talking points at AIX 2022.
Sale of destination services like onward transportation, hotel bookings, restaurant reservations and tickets to tours and attractions has been touted as an area with huge growth potential for some time now. Passengers do not always think in advance about what they might do when they arrive at their destination so there is ample opportunity to provide bookable destination services which serve to both increase ancillary revenues and provide travellers with desirable content and a platform to get a better feel for where they’re going.
It’s clear that destination content is one of the most exciting developments in the IFE space right now and we can expect to see the topic as a common talking point at the event.
Implementing in-flight Bluetooth audio has been challenging for airlines due to the large number of passengers trying to connect to individual IFE systems. Crew and passenger Wi-Fi systems can also prevent onboard Bluetooth networks from working as desired and, as such, the result has often been chaotic.
However, there have been significant improvements to in-flight Bluetooth technology in the last couple of years with developments from Safran, Panasonic, and Thales. Safran’s solution garnered very positive reviews when it launched in 2019 and Panasonic’s new offering has also proved popular with American Airlines and SAUDIA recently signing up.
This is still an evolving space, and we can expect vendors to share recent success stories and highlight the opportunities and benefits such solutions can bring to airlines.
The pandemic has fundamentally changed the way the cabin will be managed. More and more airlines are becoming reliant on, at the very least, a basic platform to help manage the cabin and reduce touchpoints and crew-to-passenger interaction where possible. From an airline’s perspective, a portable box providing a digital seat pocket solves serves the purpose and is a cost-effective, relatively easy fix to the problem. From the perspective of system providers and CSPs, they will hope that, over time, airlines decide to upgrade the service and take on more comprehensive IFE solutions such as traditional AVOD content.
The need for a digital seat pocket is almost universal across commercial aircraft and offers IFE providers a new touchpoint with airlines they may not have spoken to before. As such, this will continue to feature as a vital first step in digitalising airlines currently without IFE.
The wellness industry has been growing rapidly over the last decade and the trend has now reached the skies as more and more airlines are looking to entice nervous travellers back by ensuring a safe and relaxing onboard experience. In the last few years, we’ve seen both Panasonic and Thales launch a suite of wellness solutions which are often underpinned by IFE platforms. Additionally, we’ve seen W-IFE vendors such as Inflight Dublin introduce meditation/breathing apps as part of their platform. In-flight wellness is not just a short-term response related to COVID, rather, it is a long-term trend, and we can expect to see more developments in this space in the future.
Continue the Conversation
Let us know if this list lines up with your own expectations, or if we’ve missed anything, by dropping Daniel or David a quick email. Likewise, please reach out if you would like to schedule a meeting. You can get the ball rolling on this by completing the form below.