Deploy quickly and work out the bugs along the way. That’s not a typical approach to anything in the aviation world, and for good reason. Safety is paramount. But when it comes to the inflight connectivity solution on board AirAsia has other ideas. In partnership with its AirAsia WiFi subsidiary (formerly ROKKI), the carrier is pursuing rapid deployment of inflight connectivity across its fleet. The newest installed planes feature Ka-band connectivity on the GX Aviation network, backed by Inmarsat. PaxEx.Aero was invited on a (very short) demonstration flight in early November to test the system and get a feel for AirAsia’s very different approach to the inflight connectivity market.
The deployment timeline for the system is aggressive, with CEO Tony Fernandes saying he’s “really in a rush” to get the entire fleet online. The airline targets EoY 2020 for group-wide equipage. This includes all aircraft across the eight operating carriers. A significant number will remain on the SwiftBroadband connection that they carry today, with those only upgrading after the rest of the installations complete.
First the good news: The newly installed GX Aviation inflight connectivity solution on AirAsia’s A320 fleet works pretty darn well. Once connected to the network there was little to get in the way of my online experience. A video call to the ground was successful and general browsing performance was reasonable.The connection has traffic shaping restrictions in place but, assuming a passenger purchases a sufficiently large megabyte package, even some video streaming is possible on board.
And then there’s the bad news: The portal experience on my flight had issues. Only one of the three test devices I carried on board connected successfully to the network. And this is a major problem for the WiFi implementation on multiple levels.
On my laptop the capture portal kept refreshing at the initial language selection screen. After fighting with that for a few minutes a company representative on board acknowledged that the version loaded on our plane was not properly supporting the full size screen of a laptop, as opposed to the smaller mobile phone screens. How that translates to tablet displays is an interesting question but one I was unable to answer during the short trip. A third device also had trouble acquiring an IP address from the portal once in the air though it worked on the ground. The cause of that issue was not determined during the trip.
Beyond the general disappointment in not getting online with the devices, a portal failure means that AirAsia’s ancillary revenue plans tied to the program fall apart in a hurry. The portal is not just a means to collect billing details and release customers to the internet. Indeed, if AirAsia WiFi CEO Sargunan “Guna” Seenivasan had his way most passengers would never move past the portal. Instead they’d avail themselves of the content and – most importantly – the shopping opportunities the portal offers. “We’re trying to make the whole experience as seamless as possible. The last thing we want if for passenger to come into the portal then leave it and do whatever they want. We need to make the portal engagement more exciting and more interesting… What we’re more focused on is making sure WiFi is used for other services, e-commerce and advertising. WiFi is used to draw customers to the portal.”
While the portal software presented challenges during the demo flight Seenivasan is confident that the rapid development and deployment cycle the company has in place can overcome these issues relatively quickly. Rather than the typical heavy testing in private that most airlines perform as they bring their IFC portal online AirAsia appears happy to let some of these bugs surface in production. Whether this proves to dissuade users from trying in the future remains to be seen, but for those who can connect the experience is a decent one.
The decision to sell the service via megabyte packages may still be the most fair pricing structure but it is also generally the most confusing to passengers. And it is especially challenging when it comes to streaming video. Most passengers have no idea how much bandwidth will be consumed by various services and running out of bytes midway through a show would be frustrating, especially since the portal explicitly mentions streaming support on board.
On the plus side, the company is encouraging enrollment in its BIG loyalty program with a free 10MB package for members. That’s not useful for much, especially in today’s visual communications world, but it is better than nothing if users are smart enough to not send or receive any images during the flight.
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