Seamless Air Alliance hopes to deliver frictionless inflight connectivity

What is keeping consumers from spending more time (and money) online while in the air? Even when connectivity is free plenty of travelers stay offline in flight, suggesting that other factors play into that decision. One is almost certainly the friction created by the login and payment process. Managing multiple account credentials across different systems is a pain for consumers. That pain point is one which the newly announced Seamless Air Alliance hopes to smooth in the coming years.

The new trade group, founded by Airbus, Delta, OneWeb, Sprint, and Bharti Airtel (“Airtel”) seeks to allow terrestrial mobile operators to “extend their services into airline cabins” and “them to continuously provide their customers – via satellite technology – with the same high-speed, low-latency connectivity from ground to air and back again.” That is a lot of promise from a group that didn’t exist before this past weekend. The approach appears to focus on three key areas.

Easy-to-use, high-speed connectivity is part of the next revolution in aerospace. We’re excited to create this seamless experience for our airline customers and their passengers. – Marc Fontaine, Airbus Digital Transformation Officer

Access & Billing

Delivering more bandwidth to every aircraft at a lower cost does not matter much if consumers are not logging on. That’s not necessarily about removing the costs of connectivity but about changing the way accounts are managed and payment is processed. Some vendors are making progress on that front. The AeroMobile GSM-based connections from Panasonic Avionics can bill directly to a mobile phone plan through roaming agreements across the globe. That’s mostly seamless but also a more expensive and metered connection. Yes, it reduces friction but it doesn’t deliver the full package of benefits to passengers. Similarly, Gogo and T-Mobile partnered to allow access simply by entering an eligible phone number on the portal page. That’s better than entering a credit card number but still not a completely seamless process.

With our 5G network rolling out next year we’re investing heavily to make sure our customers have the best mobile Internet experience possible. As an initial member of the Seamless Alliance, we’re looking forward to enabling customers to experience Sprint’s high-speed connectivity in the air, hassle-free. – Dow Draper, Chief Commercial Officer, Sprint

David Fox, vice-president of Inflight Services and Connectivity at Deutsche Telekom, recently described his company’s efforts on that front: “For the passenger, it is all about making things easier. We want to seamlessly merge connectivity into the airline proposition.” The company offers an SDK allowing airlines to integrate the connection process into their own app, for example, rather than requiring a separate interface or external workflow. The company is also working on features like prepaid connectivity passes on a mobile device that automatically connect once on board. Similarly, airlines and service providers can deliver an “instant on” connection to carrier-issued devices on company aircraft.

These are the seamless and frictionless experiences that will truly benefit consumers. Extending them beyond a single service provider and making the individual designs interoperable – the goals of the Seamless Air Alliance – offer significant potential value to passengers, airlines and providers alike.

Satellite Connectivity

Key in the Seamless Air Alliance’s satellite pitch is mention of a low-latency connection. That depends on the OneWeb low earth orbit (LEO) satellite constellation delivering the backbone service to reduce latency versus geosynchronous (GEO) satellite options. The LEO network is delayed from initial plans but still moving forward, with launches expected in 2018 to begin testing and service of the 648-satellite constellation.

Because satellites in the LEO orbit are moving the antenna systems require more advanced tracking capabilities than those used with GEO satellites. Switching between active satellites without dropping service requires a kit that performs better than anything in commercial aviation service today. Phased-array antennae are expected to address this challenge and several vendors continue to work on such solutions. Some are now being deployed in maritime markets where weight, size and power limitations are not as strict. Getting those (affordably) to an aircraft remains a challenge.

What if the best internet you ever experienced was in the air? Keeping this goal in mind, together, we will enable an affordable and frictionless experience for passengers everywhere. With the launch of our first production satellites set for later this year, we’re one step closer to bridging the global Digital Divide on land and in the air. – Greg Wyler, Founder and Executive Chairman of OneWeb

Of the inflight wifi connectivity provider companies flying today only Gogo suggests that its current hardware platform supports LEO satellite constellations. The Thinkom antennae used in the company’s 2Ku solution are able to switch satellites at a much higher speed thanks to the mechanical design of that antenna. Still, it is not a completely seamless handoff. The companies are also working through a series of reliability challenges with the Thinkom kit, partially attributed to issues with de-icing. It is unclear that this is the perfect solution for an aviation LEO network connection.

On-board Hardware

Another facet of the Seamless Air Alliance’s push covers “streamlining system integration and certification, providing open specifications for interoperability” of the on-board hardware. This touches on the idea of standardization across the industry, a topic championed by the APEX Association and one which presents technical and strategic challenges for participating companies. The management systems and wireless access points (WAPs) deliver different performance and feature sets. Pushing towards a single, standard offering risks a “lowest common denominator” approach that hamstrings innovation and improvements.

Jon Norris, senior director, Corporate Sales & Marketing at Panasonic Avionics, recently expressed concern about focusing solely on the “standard” metric of megabits per second, “[C]connectivity is just a means to an end. If you only look at standardization from the view of being able to switch vendors you’re missing the point of all the other solutions and services that are enabled by connectivity.”

Driving to a standard for mounting brackets, wiring needs or power consumption could prove beneficial to everyone in the industry. And in many ways the vendors are moving in that direction. Pushing to a single selection for on-board hardware, however, is unlikely to deliver the value the airlines or passengers seek. And it is unlikely that the suppliers would cooperate willingly.

Will the Seamless Air Alliance Work?

The goals of the Seamless Air Alliance are laudable. And some cooperation among various vendors can be reasonably accomplished without limiting progress in the industry. There are many technical hurdles to overcome and some cooperation and potentially co-investment could drive that forward more quickly. The group is even signing on additional partners beyond the five founding members which is a promising sign.

Seth Miller has over a decade of experience covering the airline industry. With a strong focus on passenger experience, Seth also has deep knowledge of inflight connectivity and loyalty programs. He is widely respected as an unbiased commentator on the aviation industry. He is frequently consulted on innovations in passenger experience by airlines and technology providers. You can connect with Seth on Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn and .