The AirFi LEO product could (finally) be online soon. First announced in October 2018, the AirFi LEO product will take the company’s streaming IFE solution and give it a connectivity boost through a low-cost satellite connection. In the year since that announcement both AirFi and launch customer Atlantic Airways remained relatively quiet about the program. Early setbacks are now resolved, however, and AirFi is once again talking up the program and its potential to deliver an inexpensive, high value upgrade to airlines not yet willing to commit to a full connectivity solution on their planes.
The AirFi LEO system connects to the Iridium NEXT satellite constellation using a commercially available antenna system that mounts in a window of the aircraft. Indeed, the implementation delays were grounded in getting that mounting setup just right for the first A320 aircraft. After a couple false starts a revised insert for the window is finally ready to fly.
With an antenna on each side of the plane the company ensures a solid connection for data services at all times. The system also includes LTE and WiFi modules for communications on the ground and a dedicated GPS receiver for improved location accuracy in the AirFi IFE system overall.
At the Future Travel Experience Asia conference in Singapore last week AirFi was pushing the LEO option hard, showing off the hardware at its booth and talking up the ease of installation to potential customers. That last bit might come across as a bit ironic given the challenges the company had with launch customer Atlantic Airways, but CEO Job Heimerikx is confident that those troubles are resolved. He is also more optimistic than ever at the value this low bandwidth connection can deliver.
The primary proposition is from payment processing. Such transactions are either sent via ACARS today or held offline, in hopes that the card will be valid when the transaction is processed back on the ground. Heimerikx sees the Iridium connection drops the data costs by a factor of more than 100. And once the system is on board to improve payment security with that lower cost the other use cases begin to open up. Advertising becomes more targeted when the systems have connectivity. Little passenger wins like updated connecting gate information can be delivered on board (though that’s less significant for Atlantic Airways’ operations).
More significantly, however, the onboard shopping experience can be extended to a massively larger catalog. Fulfillment occurs on the ground at arrival rather than in the air. The connection allows a shopping cart to be transmitted for pennies. Similarly, the connection opens up the ability to book restaurant reservations, event tickets, or tour packages for the destination city. The catalog can be cached on the aircraft with just inventory and pricing updating.
AirFi is not alone in pursuing these ideas. Inflight mapping company FlightPath3D talked up a similar suite of inflight sales in late 2017 as it was adding more monetization options to its point of interest interface. And there was the Lufthansa Systems version of the patch antenna solution. That BoardConnect variation was killed off after a year or so of development. It is worth noting that Iridium CEO Matt Desch is on record as saying he doesn’t want to be competing in the passenger connectivity business with his LEO constellation.
But the BoardConnect version was targeting passenger services. In describing the decision to end work on the program LH Systems’ Jan-Peter Gaense was clear about those challenges, “[W]e don’t think we can get a value proposition that can make passengers happy. The first passenger sending a picture of their meal is going to clog the pipe and frustrate everyone. We don’t want to get a solution out there that’s going to piss everyone off.” AirFi does not intend to deliver unfettered passenger access through its AirFi LEO system. It is a sufficiently different product that Heimerikx does not expect those same troubles. And Gaense acknowledges that approach could be viable, “We do think it could be cool for payments; for online payment it makes a lot of sense. And maybe for some other back-end transactions.”
More from Future Travel Experience Asia 2019
- AirAsia to begin ticket sales for other airlines
- AirFi streaming IFE goes live on Batik Airways
- PaxEx Update: FTE Asia edition
- A new player in the race for inflight WiFi over India
- AirFi moving forward with Atlantic Airways’ connected deployment
- Inmarsat’s GX-5 launches successfully, kicking off the next phase of the GX story
- AirAsia looks beyond the pipe for inflight connectivity value
- Putting AirAsia’s new GX WiFi to the test