It worked, exactly as advertised. That was the main takeaway from last week’s media demo flight of the new SAS high-speed inflight internet service on the carrier’s single-aisle fleet. The event targeted mostly Scandinavian journalists, a group less familiar with streaming movies in flight. Such connection speeds are less common in Europe than in North America. For travelers familiar with the JetBlue type of service, backed by satellite capacity from Viasat, the experience was comfortably familiar, including speed tests running at 12 Mbps. Toss most any use case at the system, including streaming videos, and watch as it meets those requests. It just works. And it will be free for top-tier frequent flyers and premium passengers; for others the price is a reasonable €4.90 per session.
PaxEx.Aero was hosted at the event to experience the Viasat inflight wifi service outside the USA; all opinions remain independent.
Most on board focused on streaming videos and running speed tests during the hour long loop over Sweden. Those tests served up the requested streams with minimal buffering or disruptions. Speed tests regularly showed 15Mbps rates, meeting the service targets. Other use cases such as remote desktop management were similarly responsive and reliable. Most voice and broadcast services (e.g. Periscope) are blocked or display significant latency consistent with a geosynchronous satellite connection. Limiting those services is a decision the airline made, hoping to keep cabin disruptions to a minimum as the system comes online. Again, all exactly as expected. That said, some were successful. Streaming the departure roll on Facebook Live worked, for example.
Perhaps just as telling about the service availability and reliability is that in scores of unpublished test flights over recent months the system saw significant usage, without and marketing push or passenger education efforts. Viasat and SAS employees noted many flights with 40+ end-user devices connected to the internet, all without any interaction from the cabin crew to support or even announce the availability of the connection on board. This organic adoption is important to the carrier as it seeks a smooth rollout, avoiding the challenges and crew disruption some prior initiatives delivered. For Entertainment and Connectivity Manager Gunilla Ait El Mekki delivering that crew satisfaction is as important as getting the system in the hands of passengers. It is also a major part of the very deliberate aircraft activation schedule SAS is running.
El Mekki is interested in passenger feedback on the service, of course, but also knows that the crew experience is critical to a successful deployment, “It is very important for us to see what crew think, especially because we have so many short flights. We don’t want crew to be disturbed too much; we want them to be in command.” Part of that plan comes from enabling a Viasat-operated chat support service on the portal. Part of it comes from slowly enabling the aircraft rather than turning them all on at once.
Nearly thirty aircraft have the hardware on board. Only seven were active on day one. Staff from SAS and Viasat flew on those planes for the first couple days of service, monitoring the systems and also any passenger queries from the crew. Seat-back cards providing instructions for connecting are printed but only enough to get through the initial trials; the airline wants to make sure that it can adjust quickly if needed to meet passenger challenges.
The crew knows that they can’t do much [technical support] and that passengers have to be supported by someone else. Otherwise [flight attendants] will not be able to do the in-flight service that we are so proud of. – Gunilla Ait El Mekki, Entertainment and Connectivity Manager
The carrier expects 40 aircraft to be active when peak summer schedule hits in the coming weeks.
Getting to “full” Viasat Wifi equipage for SAS
A slow initial rollout makes sense to ensure passenger and crew satisfaction. Stretching deployment of the full complement of aircraft into 2020 is harder to justify, at least from a passenger satisfaction perspective. A slower installation pace during the peak summer season is common. For the SAS deployment the pace is also slowed by other retrofit work happening on the aircraft. As El Mekki explains, “[W]e do C-checks and new cabin interior at the same time on part of the fleet at the same time as we install WiFi. There will be only a few planes left to install in 2020, the main part is done earlier.”
Another challenge for the “full” fleet rollout is the status of 10 aircraft previously fitted with Panasonic Avionics‘ eXConnect wifi solution. There are “no new plans” for those aircraft currently.
SAS pushed hard during the demo briefing around the competitive advantages the fast, free (to premium customers and top-tier frequent flyers) wifi on board will bring to bear. It is a big part of the company’s push towards a new, customer-focused service offering. Therese Lorenius, SAS’s VP Product & Services highlighted that commitment, suggesting that it will give frequent travelers a better personal life as they can be done with work when they arrive rather than have to catch up on what they missed while in flight. And that will be the case for those who get one of the fitted planes. But the chance of flying on a unequipped plane remains. And that can be challenging for those same passengers. In many ways consistency of experience is critical to the success of any new product rollout. SAS will come up short on that front for some time yet.
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