How inflight connectivity empowers ‘no-touch’ service on commercial jets

With COVID-19 considerations driving more digital interactions, airlines are moving toward a newer experience in the sky


It doesn’t matter today if an airline historically considered itself to provide “high-touch” or “low-touch” service on board.

A new sort of goal is at hand: no-touch.

Airlines want to reduce interactions between crew and passengers while still maintaining inflight services. Even the historically low-touch carriers need to bounce back with some level of interaction to restore the inflight sales channel, a key component of their revenue model. Meanwhile, the high-touch carriers need to deliver on the comfort promise. In all scenarios connectivity and data drive this next generation of the passenger experience.

“One of the things that we see bringing the greatest utility is to find new business models and new constructs and new technologies that allow that seamless roaming on the ground in the air.” - Don Buchman, VP & General Manager for Commercial Aviation

Inflight service

The inflight service experience improves with higher levels of interaction between the crew and passengers. Whether it’s the warm smile of a flight attendant refilling a drink in business class or the ability to buy a snack and some toys from the retail offerings on a low-cost carrier, that contact matters. And while not all of it can be shifted to the digital world, there’s enough that can be to help provide a feeling of safety while traveling while also helping restore passenger confidence in the aviation world.

Don Buchman, VP & General Manager for Commercial Aviation, presented the company’s vision for this transition during a recent Wireless Broadband Alliance webinar, calling attention to the ability to “digitize the easier interactions, to have virtual calls and virtual interactions via text, to cut down on person-to-person” transactions during the pandemic stage.

That could mean everything from passengers using their own device to request service from a flight attendant (reducing aisle trips) to offering information like when the airline was last cleaned. Communication between crew and cockpit can also be streamlined in this manner.

And while the impetus for change is pandemic-related, the transition is expected to be a permanent one, not a short-lived experiment.

This type of retail interaction on the inflight entertainment system is not new; a handful of airlines have successfully deployed similar systems over the years. But the current environment forces dramatic improvements to the offerings, moving beyond selling products and services to more personalized conversations between crew and passengers.

Beyond retail

Beyond snacking, passengers have other needs and wants on board. Historically, providers pushed destination content as a channel for the IFE/C platforms, but that carries a new meaning today. Travelers might want information on what tours are available at their destination, but they need to know other details — like health-related requirements for entry. Are masks required when the aircraft lands? What limitations exist at the destination for arriving visitors?

This next generation of the entertainment and connectivity platforms can deliver that data along with movies and duty-free shopping. And, thanks to satellite-based connectivity, the details can always be up to date, a critical need as the rules are constantly changing.

Playing on the power of personal devices

While many of these benefits can be delivered via embedded systems on aircraft, using personal devices offers a step-change in the passenger experience. Anything beyond a basic retail store is a cumbersome experience with the in-seat screen — and developing new services on those platforms typically comes with significant lead times.

Web-based or app-based updates can be processed much more quickly. Moreover, interacting on a familiar device eliminates many of the interface challenges. The ability to quickly tap out a reply comes much more easily on the devices passengers type on every day, without constantly thumping a headrest.

There is also the opportunity for the two systems to work in harmony. Using a personal device as a remote control for the embedded screen is an option for a few airlines today, but it can be a clunky experience. Refining the link between the systems can deliver further benefits to passengers.

Reducing friction

Standing in the way of this evolution is the challenge of getting connected once on board. Every airline offers a slightly different process: a different network name, a different login scheme, different prices, and more.

Transitioning to a more seamless connectivity experience on board comes with technical challenges, but the payoff will be huge for the airlines, the passengers and their suppliers. Buchman recently highlighted the progress Viasat is making on this front: “The frictionless connection is very important for us,” he said. “Working with the Wireless Broadband Alliance we’re developing roaming protocols that can get past Wi-Fi as a friction source, so that ‘it just works’ when a passenger gets on board.”

This is even more critical as airlines shift toward a free inflight Wi-Fi experience, something Viasat’s airline customers are very familiar with. The goal is to make the experience seamless. As Buchman said: “You have your phone next to you just like in a coffee shop and an alert comes in. You start interacting and you don’t even realize you’ve transitioned to be online on the plane.”

Michelle Munoz-Talcott is Marketing Director, Global Mobile Solutions at Viasat. She leads marketing and strategy in the Global Mobile Solutions segment, which includes commercial and business aviation as well as maritime. She has over 20 years of marketing experience in the technology and wireless industries including Verizon, Vodafone and Nokia (formally Alcatel-Lucent). Her roles have included working in all facets of marketing and product management as well as international posts in Europe.