They are the ultimate captive audience, sitting on board one of mankind’s greatest inventions, but in a strangely anachronistic twist if a passenger on a flight requires food, drink, entertainment or assistance they must run the gauntlet of the food trolley, sharp edged metal doors flapping, blocking off at least two of the available bathrooms.
But in an age where several billion people treat their pocket sized supercomputers like standard issue fashion accessories, why on earth, or indeed off it, should this be?
One reason is short-termism; in order to install Wi-Fi on a plane the aircraft must be grounded for however long it takes for an engineer to install all the fiddly equipment – and airlines do not like it when their planes are grounded, because it costs jaw dropping sums of money in lost revenues.
Ok so the long term benefits (a significant uplift in the sale of add-on services, from duty free to planning your holiday trips and entertainment in advance whilst there is literally nothing else to do other than wrestle you neighbour for the rights to the armrest) would seem to outweigh the short term losses, but it’s a brave chief exec that makes that call.
Secondly there are real impracticalities that are not at all easy to overcome; most connectivity is provided by masts and towers, which is all well and good when you are on land, but becomes a problem when you are 30,000 feet above it. Or over the sea.
But if you can’t look down, surely you can look up? Now that painfully slow L-Band technology has been replaced by higher frequency 12-18 GHz Ku Band satellites this is becoming a more and more viable option. Passengers even have 2 options on some flights – connect via the telecoms company (and the fee is added to your mobile phone bill) or access the airline’s Wi-Fi, which tends to be more expensive.
In fact, looking beyond Ku Band, the arrival of Ka Band (26.5-40 GHz) promises to be a crucial development as it is only when you have this much bandwidth capacity (100x greater than Ku Band) that prices for customers begin to come down.
Price has long been issue – the much maligned GoGo service in the US, for example, far from being heralded for being ahead of its time, is attacked for charging exorbitant prices – but despite the high charges, the company has never turned a profit.
71% of all air travel in the world takes place without access to Wi-Fi, but moves are finally being made to change this. The US has always been the front runner; Jet Blue are the latest airline to announce their own service, Fly-Fi, which has been installed on all of their A321 and A320 aircraft, and nearly one third of the E190 fleet.
GoGo will continue to control the fate of onboard Wi-Fi in the states however, powering American Airlines, Delta, Frontier, United and Virgin.
And what of Europe? There have remarkably few attempts to try provide any kind of Internet access, however recently there have been some signs of life. Deutsche Telekom and Inmarsat have announced a joint venture which they say will provide high-speed internet access across European Airspace by 2017 using an LTE ground and satellite network.
Lufthansa offers in-flight connectivity on its longer haul flights whilst Norwegian Air also offers access on some of its flights.
Ryanair are reported to be trialling a service on their top business routes and Finnair also hope to rollout a service, but this still leaves most of the 30,000 flights that travel through European airspace every day with no service to speak of.
In Asia things are slightly better – although not by much. Emirates, Air China, Hong Kong Airlines, Phillipine Airlines, and Turkish airlines all offer a complimentary Wi-Fi service, whilst others, such as Singapore Airlines or Qatar Airlines, provide a paid-for service.
And there’s the rub – the reality is that passenger’s simply prefer not to pay for a service – particularly when the broadband strength and only supports checking of email or downloading presentations – streaming of films or games and other in-flight entertainment is still a long way off.
But there’s good news for entrepreneurs: one man attempting to exploit the space and disrupt the bigger players who have been slow to understand how simpler Wi-Fi services can enhance the passenger’s experience is Dino Demetriou.
Dino’s startup Minime Labs has pivoted from a provider of omnichannel shopping services for malls and shopping centres using the latest technology to a provider of concierge services for passengers. The entrepreneur has turned his frustration at the lack of services, other than the in-flight magazine and the food and drink trolley into a positive. His solution has a major advantage in that his team have developed a Wi-Fi box that can be installed without the plane needing to be grounded for any length of time and without the airlines needing to obtain type certification.
The Wi-Fi connects to an app which can be downloaded before the flight or whilst onboard through which passengers can connect to flight attendants, order drinks and services and have them delivered directly to their seats, and provide exclusive content to passengers mobile or tablet devices.
Imagine doing all your duty free shopping and have everything waiting for you upon arrival; flights, be they business, personal, or with families are almost inevitably stressful experiences – this simple service can help take a load off, and with further services planned Dino is optimistic his first mover advantage could prove telling as the battle for passengers attention intensifies.
Minime Labs are in late stage talks with major airlines in both Europe and America and Dino is hopeful that one day hundreds of aircraft could be installing his unique, patent pending solution.
By keeping things simple, Dino believes Minime Labs could finally crack the market and turn a profit – advertising is another revenue stream; something which has eluded nearly all of the companies, large and small, who have tried and failed to do just that, to date.
“The key is putting the customer first but you can only do that when you have solved the technical side of the problem”, Dino says. The next stage for Minime Labs is to find the funding to meet demand for the boxes. VCs, Angel investors and major or minor carriers will doubtless take note – an investment at this time could help the 3.6 billion passengers expected to take at least one flight in 2016 finally rest easy – and not be forced to run the gauntlet of the food trolley any longer – it’s one in the aisles of the major airlines – but then entrepreneurs have always been more agile than their risk averse corporate counterparts.