The pace of global inflight connectivity installs in commercial aviation continues to increase. For transoceanic flights the satellite-based options available on the market are rapidly being installed on hundreds of aircraft each year. And then there’s British Airways. The carrier has one widebody with a trial connectivity system on board, and is not moving particularly quickly to grow that number. Quite the opposite, in fact.
Speaking at the Future Travel Experience conference last week in Las Vegas, BA head of product and service Kate Thornton was asked outright about the carrier’s plans on the connectivity front. She had a firm answer, though it is not likely to make connectivity-focused passengers happy.
“Clearly there is no argument that this is where the industry is going and that this is what customers expect. But several people have talked about the experience the technology offers today and how quickly the technology is evolving. For us, we don’t see that we are losing business as a result of it today. We know that we need to make a decision but it is an important decision and we want to get it right. So we’re entirely comfortable if lots of other people to push on ahead with this and experiment and help us learn. We want to make sure that we make the right decision, that we don’t just make a decision for the sake of making it fast,” she said.
On the one hand Thornton is convinced that the carrier is not losing business based on the lack of inflight Internet on long-haul flights. And there’s something to be said for letting others experience the teething pains of new technology, getting the systems through the shake-down period and then choosing one that has proven to be reliable and sufficient for passenger needs. But for each successive generation of technology the process to get it onto airplanes is not a quick one; weeks become months and months become years. It will never be possible to choose a technology which doesn’t face competition from something else billed as better, faster and cheaper by the time the hardware is installed.
On short-haul flights in Europe, there is much less pressure to offer inflight Internet since only a handful of carriers currently provide the service. Even so, BA appears to have a somewhat firmer plan for equipping its narrowbodies, announcing in June that it could become the launch airline for Inmarsat’s planned pan-European integrated satellite/air-to-ground (ATG) solution. At that time, Thornton said BA was in discussions with Inmarsat “about leading Europe in a new era of broadband in the air. Starting with UK domestic routes Inmarsat intends to deploy Europe’s first ground-based 4G broadband network giving our customers the Internet access they expect on the ground while in the air.”
BA is not the only carrier taking a wait-and-see approach to connectivity on its long-haul fleet. Air New Zealand recently told RGN that it believes the experience its customers would receive from current technology across its network would not be valued compared to the cost to deliver it, though the carrier has not ruled out equipping its aircraft down the road.
But when Virgin Atlantic inaugurates Boeing 787 service between London and Atlanta on 23 October – and live streams a concert by Rudimental over what is believed to be Panasonic’s Ku-band inflight connectivity system – one wonders if rival BA will start to feel competitive pressure then. Virgin Atlantic also recently announced it will retrofit its current fleet with Gogo’s next gen 2Ku connectivity solution.
Consider also that other connectivity-equipped airlines are already moving into the second phase of their plans. No longer is it just about Internet service for consumers; the plane is becoming a “node on the network” and airlines are targeting operational benefits from those connections. It is not only about the customers. But all those benefits begin with that pipe to the plane.
For now, British Airways is sitting on the sidelines in this game. That is currently the right decision in the carrier’s playbook.