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Next-wave inflight entertainment: Online shopping, ‘live’ TV and more

SINGAPORE — Online shopping, real-time social-media updates, email access, dozens of ‘live’ TV channels in your preferred language and even tele-medicine — all these at 36,000 feet in the air, powered by high-speed Internet. Welcome to the world of next-generation in-flight entertainment — the new game changer in the commercial aviation market.

In its annual Global State of In-flight Wi-Fi report, airline comparison site Routehappy highlighted that more airlines than ever now offer airborne Internet. Photo: Reuters

In its annual Global State of In-flight Wi-Fi report, airline comparison site Routehappy highlighted that more airlines than ever now offer airborne Internet. Photo: Reuters

SINGAPORE — Online shopping, real-time social-media updates, email access, dozens of ‘live’ TV channels in your preferred language and even tele-medicine — all these at 36,000 feet in the air, powered by high-speed Internet. Welcome to the world of next-generation in-flight entertainment — the new game changer in the commercial aviation market.

Airlines around the globe are beefing up their in-flight entertainment offerings as the competition to lure passengers reach a fever pitch amid a capacity glut that has triggered fare wars across short-, medium- and long- haul flights across continents. In its annual Global State of In-flight Wi-Fi report, airline comparison site Routehappy highlighted that more airlines than ever now offer airborne Internet.

“We don’t want to change your behaviour because you are on an airplane. Instead, you do things the way you otherwise do anywhere. Part of our goal is to make it so inexpensive that it becomes basic ... (For this to happen) we are working on the design and deployment of much more sophisticated satellite systems. What that means in lay terms is more and more bandwidth at a lower cost without much impact on the aircraft,” Mr David Brunner, vice-president of Global Communication Services at Japan’s Panasonic Avionics Corp, told TODAY.

Around 60 carriers, according to Routehappy, currently offer Wi-Fi in most regions with several airlines upgrading their aircraft to offer the third-generation of in-flight Wi-Fi. For the airlines, industry experts say, it also offers a tremendous opportunity for data collection and analysis to better understand customers, and develop strategies to retain them in today’s fiercely competitive environment.

“After all, the passenger is in front of the display system for 10 to 15 hours. If someone is able to make him or her feel good at 36,000 feet above sea level, it will create memories, boosting the customer’s loyalty towards the airline. We intend to create value through personalisation — real-time adaptation to passenger mood and culture,” Mr Dominique Giannoni, chief executive of Thales InFlyt Experience, told TODAY on the sidelines of the Singapore Airshow.

The French avionics major said on Wednesday that it bagged a deal with Singapore Airlines (SIA) to equip the flag carrier’s future fleet of Airbus A350 XWB aircraft with Thales’ latest in-flight entertainment. These offerings include lightweight monitors featuring full high-definition video and integrating Avii, the newest evolution of the Thales Touch Passenger Media Unit, in the premium cabins.

SIA told TODAY it has also tied up with Honeywell for the US tech giant’s JetWave satellite communications hardware to be installed in a majority of the carrier’s Boeing 777-300ER aircraft starting late this year. This will be followed by its Airbus A380-800s and A350-900s, beginning in the third quarter of 2017.

Honeywell’s hardware, which carries the Inmarsat Global Xpress Aviation system, is a high-speed in-flight connectivity service that will provide aircraft with data rates of up to 50Mbps (Megabits per second). At 50Mbps, the technology is less than 10 per cent of the land-based speed of around 600Mbps to 1Gbps, but analysts said it is still a significant improvement.

“The speed is still relatively high, considering previously Internet on air was either with no connectivity or around 5 to 10Mbps,” said Mr Clement Teo, senior analyst at Forrester Research. “It is very hard to say if the airlines would increase prices on their current plans. It depends on the demand and the carrier’s objective — for it to be a revenue contributor, or an add-on service. To business travellers, Internet connection would be very necessary, but to holiday travellers, it may not make sense to pay more for such services.”

SIA told TODAY it was unable to share details on the costs of the new systems to be put in its aircraft and whether these will be passed on directly to passengers. “SIA is already offering WiFi packages to our customers on selected 777-300ERs and the A380s. The upgrade to broadband, with higher speed and greater bandwidth, will provide customers with a better experience when using the in-flight WiFi Internet,” it said.

Currently, SIA provides volume-based or time-based price plans for aircraft equipped with the services. For example, an OnAir volume-based 15MB deal for mobile gadgets is priced at US$6.99 (S$9.80), while a 30MB deal is at US$12.99. Meanwhile, a Panasonic GCS mobile or laptop time-based deal will cost US$11.95 for an hour’s usage.

According to Research & Markets, the in-flight entertainment and connectivity market is expected to reach US$5.8 billion by 2020 from an estimated US$2.9 billion last year, or a compounded annual growth rate of 15.2 per cent over the five years.

The Asia-Pacific market is expected to register the highest growth, mainly because of the wireless and seat-centric solutions being adopted by an increasing number of airlines, the research store noted.

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