Some passengers grumbling about OnAir experience

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Inflight connectivity provider OnAir’s services have become the subject of mounting complaints. Some passengers dislike the MB data packages sold by OnAir, and consider this pricing model to be outdated and inadequate for their data requirements (and they’ve made their discontent known on social media). But others have complained about not being able to connect to the network in-flight.

Popular blogger Seth Miller yesterday flew on a Thai Airways Airbus A380, and bought a session of OnAir Wi-Fi. He reports that he encountered two separate issues. “Yes, the paltry data packages hurt. A mobile device has the option of the very low 3 megabyte allowance or the 10 megabyte plan. Laptops get 10 or 20 megabytes; all price at about $1.50/megabyte included in the base plan. In both cases the overage charges run about $2/megabyte. Those allowances are pretty low and the prices pretty high, even compared to other OnAir-powered systems.

“That’s brutal for doing anything of value. I was scared to have anything open for fear of consuming the data in the background. In the end. My 10MB package got me very little online time. Even beyond that, however, the actual performance was bad. Loading up the mobile Twitter site took 20-30 seconds/page. The Yahoo front page was nearly 2 minutes before it was rendered in a form which was legible and several more minutes before all the images finally loaded. At that point even were it free the performance is such that it is not conducive to most business applications.”

Thai only just launched OnAir’s Wi-Fi product on its A380s and dedicated A330s.

During an HMG Aerospace-hosted IFEC conference at the recent Aircraft Interiors Middle East expo in Dubai, Inflight magazine editor – and fellow runway girl – Liz Moscrop told a panel of inflight connectivity stakeholders that she has encountered repeated problems when simply trying to connect, though she didn’t name the provider. OnAir CEO Ian Dawkins confirmed that the company has “had some problems”, and offered his explanation for why some passengers are having difficulty in accessing the service.

As consumer electronics are upgraded by manufacturers like Samsung, Nokia, Apple and others, and configurations change, “it does have an impact on your system so what we’re working with the airlines is – when the devices are upgraded – doing a lot more pre-testing of these”. He added that OnAir wants to do pre-testing “quicker to resolve the issues”.

Moscrop noted, however, that on a recent flight, she tried and failed to connect to OnAir using no fewer than three different devices.

Aware that it needs to trouble-shoot problems in real-time, OnAir has made a big push to be more proactive about customer service. “There are a number of things we’re doing. We have a 24/7 passenger care activity so if you as a passenger have a problem, we respond – if there is a problem with billing or if service wasn’t up to standard,” said Dawkins.

OnAir’s inflight mobile and Wi-Fi solutions are supported by Inmarsat’s L-band-based SwiftBroadband (SBB) aeronautical service. Blogger Seth Miller didn’t run a formal speed test during yesterday’s Thai flight. “I don’t think I could afford to given the bandwidth charges,” he says, “but pretty much every site I loaded felt slow”. He is writing a blog about his full experience, which you’ll be able to find here. In 2012, freelance aviation journalist Jason Rabinowitz conducted a speed test on board an OnAir-equipped Emirates flight; his results can be seen here.

Emirates, Qatar Airways, and Saudi Arabian Airlines are just a few of OnAir’s customers. Addressing the very specific issue of connectivity service reliability (not pricing), Inmarsat regional director, aviation Ben Griffin stressed at AIME that “usually it’s not a satellite issue”, as SwiftBroadband has a target performance “in the upper 99 percentile”.

Underscoring the “huge dependency of communications being available”, Griffin said,“The most important part is the passenger experience, and we want to make sure, obviously from a wholesale perspective…[that] from our position as much as possible, we support and make that experience as good as it possibly can be.”

Fellow inflight connectivity provider Gogo, also a panelist at AIME, has been under increasing fire for congestion on its own air-to-ground (ATG) network of cell towers in the United States. Some passengers have even gone so far as to sue Gogo in an unprecedented class action lawsuit that alleges the company operates a monopoly and overcharges for Wi-Fi. But Gogo is also working to bring Ku-band connectivity to airlines; Delta Air Lines will launch Ku on its Boeing 747 widebodies very soon.

Gogo SVP international operations David Russell said the company is focused on the passenger experience and, as such, it works “to hide all the ugliness and satellite from the passenger, and so what we at Gogo do [is] we have online chat which we find to be very effective. So you can interact with Gogo in real-time. If you can get connected on one device and not another, we can figure that out.” He added that Gogo offers “continuous monitoring” from its Chicago headquarters so that if a “Wi-Fi antenna is active” or the “satellite network is live” Gogo hopes “that we would know a problem before you [the passenger] tell the crew].”

Meanwhile, OnAir and Gogo are not the only providers facing complaints. Read a fall 2013 review of Panasonic’s Ku on United aircraft here. United has since told Runway Girl Network that it is working to address issues.

2 Comments

  1. Mary – thank you for including Ian’s comments from the Aircraft Interiors Middle East session. I would like to make a few more comments about the main points of this article.

    OnAir gives airlines the choice of how they charge passengers for Internet OnAir usage, either by data usage or a time-based plan. Thai Airways has chosen the data option, while others, Philippine Airlines, for example, have chosen to bill passengers by time. The trend is that more airlines are choosing the time-based option. However, we are very clear that the airline knows its passengers best and therefore should own the retail strategy.

    The same principle applies to pricing. Each airline has a different strategy. One airline may choose to provide Wi-Fi free of charge throughout the aircraft, while another could charge all passengers. And a third could charge economy passengers and provide Wi-Fi for free to passengers in the premium cabins.

    We always work with each airline and provide support in the definition of the retail pricing strategy, leading to real success stories, for example, with both Aeroflot (http://bit.ly/Nf0Kz3) and Oman Air (http://bit.ly/1fXYExY). But ultimately it is the airline’s choice.

    In terms of performance, it is important to remember that providing connectivity at 35,000 feet is different from providing it on the ground. Latency is typically higher, and it is inevitably more expensive. The balance we, and the airlines, need to strike is between performance and price.

    We are always working to improve performance. Our latest technology developments rely on proprietary acceleration and caching mechanisms that help improve the passenger experience. In particular, web sites with rich content, such as the Yahoo! Homepage which are relatively slow to load over any link, will load much more quickly. This is set to be implemented by airlines very soon.

    Also, there have been and there will always be issues introduced by the launch of new handset types and system software upgrades. This reality has pushed us to adapt our testing and software release process to the fast-changing behavior of passengers’ devices. This ensures “capture” mechanisms cope with the changes

    It is worth noting that both of these are issues for every connectivity provider, whether airborne or terrestrial.

    The technology is changing rapidly, and so is the passenger service. The introduction of GX Aviation next year, for example, will have a major impact on the whole inflight connectivity market.

    Connectivity can have teething problems, though that isn’t the norm. Last week, for example, our Wi-Fi service on Singapore Airlines was given a glowing review (http://bit.ly/1fkJdQm).

    I hope this OnAir perspective helps.

  2. Pingback: Connectivity not-so-much… | UXmilk