Inflight Connectivity: Strategy, Security, Success
On the 13th and 14th of September, 250 airline experts, representing over 40 airlines, headed to the Park Inn by Radisson London Heathrow for the Connected Aircraft eEnablement Conference. Among the 250 experts were our very own Frédéric Loisy and Leigh Pember. Here is Leigh’s take on it…
As the demand for connectivity grows in the aviation industry, the big question is: how can airlines safely maximize this opportunity? I attended the 2017 Aircraft eEnablement Conference in London to find this out.
Before we dive into the conference let's have a look at the big picture. Over the long term, the airline industry will transition from connected pilots to connected aircrafts to connected airlines and finally to connected aviation! A new ecosystem is being born as aircrafts start to be viewed as another node in an airline's overall network. Inflight connectivity (IFC), coupled with big data analytics and machine learning, will allow airlines to transition from historical analysis (“what has happened”) to predictive analysis (“what may happen”) to automated decision making (“what should be done to stop it happening”).
Whilst this all sounds great, there are some challenges which airlines must overcome when it comes to connectivity. Presenters at the conference told of the many opportunities available for airlines with fleets of e-enabled aircrafts, such as fuel optimization, preventative maintenance via predictive analytics, and smoother operations connecting the back office to the flight deck. However, in one to one discussions with airline representatives, it was clear to me that they recognized adding IFC alone will not achieve the desired results. Airlines themselves will have to revamp policy and procedure across the entire value chain to fully benefit from this technology upgrade.
So what is stopping them? Well, the majority of airlines I spoke with are struggling with defining their own IFC strategy. Firstly, you need to understand that IFC is a system not a thing. Like any system, there are many pieces that create a whole picture. Each piece delivers its own benefits and is interoperable with a subset of other pieces in the market. As you can see it is some kind of jigsaw puzzle, but unlike a normal puzzle the pieces continue to change their shape as technology progresses. By the time your airline has put together its own list of software and hardware requirements it is already out of date.
Thinking this is not an issue for your airline? Think again. Three large airlines I spoke to at the conference running IFC systems mentioned lead times of 18+ months to get the first connectivity project started. An eighteen month wait in the technology adoption is lightyears in development time.
When asked what was slowing down their strategy development most airlines cited disconnections between different airline departments. Each department is looking at the connected aircraft with a technology first, business case second mindset. They are not necessarily considering the impact of their preferences on other departments' operations nor are they willing to take on the responsibility for the IFC system as a whole. A good suggestion raised be conference attendees was to follow the lead of a certain Northern European carrier and create a department dedicated to manage Aircraft IT as a resource. Adequately resourced, this department is responsible to collect the requirements from all stakeholders (engineering, IT, flight operations, cockpit crew, cabin crew, security, corporate) and build a cohesive IFC strategy for the airline, as well as operate and maintain it into the future.
All of this said, IFC connectivity continues to grow globally. Craig Foster of Valour Consultancy told the audience that a total of 6,758 aircraft globally have inflight connectivity systems. The Americas region continues to lead with approximately 6 out of 10 carriers adopting some form of IFC. Overall the trend appears to be that airlines are adding connectivity for the cabin first, as passengers are increasingly demanding reliable inflight Wi-Fi. Airlines recognize that bandwidth required for cockpit connectivity needs to come second to cabin bandwidth requirements and therefore application providers must optimize their applications for SATCOM connections. Lido is already working on this solution.
Whilst the trend towards connectivity is increasing, security remains a major concern for all airlines. Recent global events, such as data breaches and ransomware, have done little to put airline management at ease about connecting their aircraft to the network. I look forward to seeing some key figures from the Airline IT industry deliver appropriate standards and playbooks for rolling out an IFC program across an airline in the near future.
Overall it was a great conference to attend. My colleagues and I thank the organizers for inviting us and providing a host of great speakers. We look forward to the next one and seeing how things have developed.