How is complete connectivity changing the way we fly?

We now see wifi as a human right, on par with receiving water or food on long-haul journeys. Despite being a relatively new technology, wifi has developed hugely in the past two decades, to the point where the availability of wifi and, by extension mobile data, will influence how a country’s infrastructure is judged.

But do we really need wifi when we’re 35,000 feet up? Do passengers really expect to be connected when they’re halfway around the world? And just how far are the airlines willing to go to keep passengers entertained on those long-haul flights? Volo takes a look at the pros, cons and obstacles to providing connection six miles high.

The benefits of an wireless inflight entertainment system

The history of in-flight entertainment

Of course, the commercial flying experience has changed beyond recognition in the past fifty years. Whereas the early days of commercial air travel focused on providing a genuine experience, modern air travel has diverged into two very separate foci – one being to provide the ultimate in onboard luxury, the other to provide an economical but comfortable means of reaching far-off destinations.

The onboard entertainment of the late sixties through to pretty much the late eighties required watching a grainy film projected onto a screen at the front of the cabin. In time, this developed to multiple screens that hung down from the cabin ceiling in the aisles. Eventually, airlines began to integrate inseat entertainment that allowed passengers to view a choice of films and TV from a seatback screen in front of their face. As technology developed, screens became clearer, larger and became more oriented around providing a simple, clean user interface.

The growth of smartphones in the 21st century added an entirely new element to air travel. Now, the means of audio-visual entertainment lay in the hands of the customer, and airlines struggled to adapt to the change. As wifi and data-roaming became integral to the lives of those on the ground, airlines remained a bastion of unconnected solitude. But more and more airlines are turning to in-flight wifi providers in a bid to keep their passengers connected.

Staying connected in the sky

So how exactly do you get wifi 35,000 feet in the air? There are two principal means of getting wifi to your passengers in-flight.

With air-to-ground (ATG) wifi, the signals go from the aeroplane directly to antennas on the ground. Of course, this method is usually limited to flights that don’t leave the country, as it requires a singular network and signals relayed from multiple ground cell towers.

With ATG wifi, the connection jumps between towers just as a mobile signal on the ground does. The bonus of using ATG wifi is that it doesn’t require the costly network infrastructure of a satellite, although the signal can get overwhelmed if too many passengers try to

Unlike onboard flights with ATG wifi, planes that operate using satellite signals receive their wifi (perhaps unsurprisingly) from an orbiting satellite. The signal is broadcast from the plane to the satellite, which is then broadcast down to the ground.

The speed of wifi depends very much on how many other aeroplanes are in the satellite’s transponder “footprint”. A modern satellite can have dozens of transponders to support a large number of simultaneous connections. Of course, transoceanic flights have to rely on using satellite to provide their wifi, because there are no cell towers in the ocean.

Using your smartphone while flying

Changing the way we travel

Air travel is no longer deemed the luxury spectacle it once was. The economy of scale ensured airlines would push to squeeze greater profits from passengers, but they must also provide something in return. With budget airlines taking an increasing share of the market, airlines have turned to other, more economical means of providing value.

It stands to reason the next evolution in air travel would be towards giving passengers greater autonomy. People want to be entertained through their own media device, as they associate it with a greater level of control. Passengers don’t want to grapple with an unfamiliar (and often unresponsive) seatback screen for all to see, particularly for parents who want to watch a film with adult themes but don’t want their kids watching anything inappropriate.

By losing the seatback screen from planes, airlines can also massively reduce the weight of an aircraft, saving fuel and money in the process. The removal of seatback screens means more legroom for passengers, with no chunky power packs stored within the chair. Likewise, with the seatback replaced by a wireless router, passengers can view the screen of their device from a position they find comfortable – a relief for anyone who’s disembarked from a long flight with a sore neck after trying to watch a film on the small seatback screen.

Going through security checks in Munich airport

The next evolution in commercial air travel

Technology has always been striving to increase wifi access in even the most remote of areas – the challenge is not so much the distance of the receiver from the ground as staying connected when travelling over multiple countries with differing access regulations. For instance, a flight from Paris to China would need to navigate the issue of providing access to Google for some of the flight, then dropping the search engine when it reaches Chinese territory, where Google is banned.

But there is a myriad of other technical and global challenges facing in-flight wifi implementation, including the laptop and tablet ban in place between several countries on US-bound flights. These new security measures have limited the technology allowed onto commercial flights, and airlines must consider the possibility that this could extend further to deny passengers a chance to use their personal devices despite paying for in-flight wifi.

Some companies have already circumvented the ban on devices by offering branded devices for hire. While this solves the issue of passengers being denied access to the wifi they paid for, it suggests the use of personal devices could present problems down the line for any fleet-wide rollout of in-flight wifi.

seatback screens

The future of in-flight wifi

But what is an acceptable price for passengers to pay for in-flight wifi? It’s likely that, for the next few years at least, wifi will be the reserve of the bigger airlines, while the budget options will be slower to adopt the technology. As the technology becomes more widespread, and airlines invest more in satellites dedicated solely to the provision of wifi, you’ll be able to board more flights safe in the knowledge that you won’t lose any connection.

Based on the evolution of other forms of onboard entertainment, in-flight wifi will eventually become available to all, but right now the trend is to prioritise first and business classes, with ‘lower-speed’ or pay-per-user options for those in economy class. As the technology becomes more prevalent, airlines will likely move to provide ‘free wifi’ for all, with the additional maintenance costs passed on through the price of tickets.

It might seem fantastical now, but the history of IFE points to a time when the technology becomes cheap and reliable enough to become a standard feature on most flights.

Optimising travel time

In-flight wifi is fast becoming a feature on planes around the world.  Qantas is already working to install in-flight wifi on 80 domestic aircraft in its fleet. While it may seem like a frivolous luxury to some right now, the history of air travel, and indeed wireless technology, suggests that won’t always be the case. Those that can’t or won’t adapt will struggle to stay relevant in an industry that puts comfort and convenience at the forefront of the customer experience.