How will the current market impact the passenger cabin? We reached out to learn what trends some of the major players in cabin IFE and connectivity are seeing and how they are responding.
Now that we are well into the pandemic, airlines are moving to long-term strategies that signal passengers the cabin experience has really changed. Some are even re-defining the airline-passenger relationship, capitalizing on technology and new apps to become the life-style brands that have made Amazon and Starbucks so successful.
Companies – including Safran, AERQ, Panasonic and Collins Aerospace – are deploying a variety of solutions and, acknowledging the industry’s lack of funding, are investing in making the business case for changes in the cabin and connectivity as airlines plan ahead.
Airlines, they said, are in different stages but much of what is happening is touchless and, in the cabin, that means using passenger personal electronic devices (PEDs) to connect to IFEC and integrating them into catering and serving. Therein lies what may be the biggest immediate change – increased reliance on PEDs. Even as PEDs have become extensions of our beings, IFEC systems have largely ignored wider integration and that is now changing, Jace Hieda, Panasonic product marketing manager explained.
“Airlines have certainly reduced spending on IFEC, the most obvious area is in the monthly operational spend,” Safran Passenger Innovations COO Joe Winston said. “We are seeing airlines refresh content on a less frequent basis, although recently this has started to increase. Some airlines have stopped offering connectivity, while others are now charging more, or more aggressively looking for sponsors. We are still seeing IFEC RFP’s for new aircraft installations, albeit less than before.”
Hieda agrees. “Some airlines are able to focus on both the ‘now’ and the ‘tomorrow – whenever that may be,” said Hieda. “For those airlines which historically have been innovators, we’re seeing interest in both existing and emerging technologies that take on a different utility or positioning in today’s context.”
One example might be Panasonic’s focus on wellness, suggesting heightened passenger stress could lead to more emphasis on well-being programming encouraging rest and relaxation such as its Slow TV, fielded by British Airways and designed to mesmerize passengers into relaxation. The company has baked wellness into its inflight product offerings since 2018 when it noted globetrotters made 830 million wellness trips in 2017 alone, citing the 2018 Global Wellness Economy Monitor which estimated the market at $650 million.
Originally designed for the health-conscious traveler, the product takes on new meaning today.
Panasonic’s Welcome Aboard Collection of eight existing and emerging products update its wellness offerings. The collection consists of both inflight entertainment elements and other solutions designed to help augment airline efforts to create a safer and healthier travel experience.
Other solutions in the collection help airlines to reduce touchpoints through smarter “less touch” technology such as Onboard Reader to digitize print publications and Companion App to integrate the PEDs.
The collection also includes the nanoe Air Cleanser. This improves air quality by generating nano-sized electrostatic atomized water particles that suppress odors and inhibit certain viruses, bacteria, and allergens. There is also Active Surfaces for easy wipe-down and ZeroTouch services, which updates content remotely. Active Surfaces replaces buttons by embedding screens beneath wood or surface veneers and incorporating proximity touch. It also offers anti-microbial UV lighting.
“We are seeing airlines evaluating how much it costs, weighing that against restoring passenger confidence,” said Collins Head of Strategic Growth & Business Development in the Strategic Programs Division Alexis Hickox. “Our wide-ranging portfolio of products to support seat hygiene and Cabin Connect wireless inflight connectivity system is designed to support connectivity and the touchless experience via PEDs to access the internet and streaming services.”
Hickox noted suppliers are focusing on how airlines can introduce applications and services to support contactless communications for both passengers and crew.
“Our Rave IFE is already offering a completely touchless experience via PEDs with the RAVE IFE Mobile App,” said Arthur Glain, who heads up Safran Seats -Strategy & Innovation explained. “The passenger can already control IFE content, lighting and seat position thanks to the phone. Additionally, we are looking into extending our range of touchless interaction with the seat. Actuated doors with proximity sensors for business class and latch-less meal table for economy class are currently being studied.
“The pandemic is affecting the overall seat design,” Glain continued. “Allowing each passenger more individualized space, reducing the number of shared surfaces and minimizing forced interaction between passengers such as stepping-over for exiting the seat, were already trends before Covid-19 but the pandemic took it to another level and we are now designing our next generation of seats with ‘passenger individual space’ as one of the key criteria.”
Safran Cabin VP Marketing Nathan Kwok explained how the company is working on a variety of onboard surfaces.
“There is an increased emphasis on hygiene, but it is important to implement this hygiene in a way that is reassuring and not intrusive,” he said. “This is what makes touchless amenities popular – they are hygienic, but also more convenient. There is also a strong intersection between a smart cabin design and a hygienic cabin. Safran Cabin has analyzed all touchpoints for both passengers and crew – including making some common touchpoints touchless, such as faucets, flush buttons and waste lids. For touchpoints that cannot be made touchless, we are studying how to make these surfaces antimicrobial.”
Such technology has been available since 2018 when NanoTouch Materials launched its products to turn dirty, high traffic, public touchpoints into continuously self-cleaning surfaces. Powered by light, NanoSeptic surfaces uses mineral nano-crystals which create a powerful oxidation reaction. Working 24/7, the surface continually oxidizes organic contaminants. Unlike traditional disinfectants and cleaners, the NanoSeptic surface uses no poisons, heavy metals or chemicals, and nothing is released from the surface since the nano-crystals are molecularly bonded to the material.
Futureproofing the Cabin
One of the biggest challenges is rapidly changing consumer technology. From RFP to installation is a multi-year process, meaning equipment is obsolete before it is installed. Thus, the interest in future-proofing the cabin.
“Some airlines are looking for long-term solutions that would be efficient not only for this pandemic but in future-proofing their cabin for the next global crisis,” Glain told Aerospace Tech Review.
Airlines, said Hieda, are looking for partners in development, exploration and innovation in creating a system that is future-proof, scalable and nimble.
As a joint venture between LG Electronics and Lufthansa Technik, this is exactly AERQ’s sweet spot. “Our investors have deep experience in the industry,” said managing director Arnd Kikker. “There are a lot of expectations for innovations in this space. We entered the market in order to bring the cabin experience into the digital age and to allow airlines to leverage everything for a more sustainable business model whether for higher brand awareness of operational efficiency or increased ancillary revenues.”
With the core of its product an Open IT platform, AERQ enables airlines to take control of their onboard experience.
Currently, according to Kikker, the process of digitalization is barely controlled by the airlines, meaning aircraft are not integrated into the overall travel chain. AERQ, is designing the future by fielding cutting-edge consumer electronics in the cabin and giving airlines control on how to develop their inflight product.
“This gives airlines a playing field,” said Kikker. “It creates a digital ecosystem throughout the cabin. Airlines can then deploy the technology when and where they need and address the touchpoints they are concerned about such as having apps on board that you don’t have today. We want airlines to have better access and leverage cabin operations including the passenger experience to build brand awareness and loyalty.”
In AERQ Managing Director Sang Soo Lee’s mind it is the ability to connect every point at once. “The AERQ Platform connects the dots between passengers, crew and developers and enables the airlines to gain control over all digital touchpoints and to have a choice in look and feel, use cases and applications.”
AERQ suggests, as a new startup still developing its technology, it has an edge on its competition because it can be more flexible and, with its joint venture, more to invest in futuristic product development.
“Airlines are thinking and discussing what we are about to deliver,” said Kikker. “We think the industry is trying to design the future. Airlines will need access to ancillary services more than before. Covid pushed increased digitalization on board. Airlines are saying they can’t spend the money now but once they recover, they are researching what they want to spend money on. That fits our timeline anyway. We have new ideas and concepts coming and we will be ready two years from now when the market is ready.”
Its open platform could also address the much-needed change in ancillary products from the unbundled services such as baggage and seat-selection fees that only annoy passengers. Developers across the travel spectrum have apps enabling airlines to sell ancillaries passengers want to buy such as ground transportation, concert tickets and tours offering the much-desired authentic experience. They urge airlines to become travel partners across the entire trip rather than just a ticket transaction. Talked about for a decade, it has never deployed as airlines focused on the physical passenger experience.
App developers are enabling airlines to finally become digital retailers that promise more ancillary revenue than ever before. Given the fiscal disaster of the pandemic, airlines may be forced to finally embrace this technology.
A perfect example is AirAsia X. With the airline in hibernation, the company is restructuring itself into a lifestyle brand that has made Amazon and Starbucks so successful and includes leveraging airasia.com for logistics, ecommerce and financial services.
“We have not wasted the crisis, in fact we’ve been using the lockdown period to fine tune our platform, unify the user experience and simplify our payment to a one-click checkout,” said AirAsia Group CEO Tony Fernandes. “We have accelerated our digital business and expanded airasia.com’s product offering from travel to everyday life. Airasia.com will emerge as the Asean super app, your best travel and lifestyle companion.”
Products, according to airasia.com CEO Karen Chan, include AirAsia Unlimited Pass, a buy-now-fly-later model. “We understand customers’ pent-up desire to travel, so we launched SNAP, our best-price guaranteed flight and hotel bundle,” she said. “We understand consumers’ want to shop in the comfort of their own home, so we offered home delivery for duty free, fresh food and meals.”
While behavior and priorities have shifted, however, Hieda illustrated one thing hasn’t changed. “Passengers are still idle in an aircraft seat for long lengths of time and current options have become commonplace,” said Hieda. “Entertainment remains a major passenger-experience driver, even with shifting priorities around one’s environment or safety.”
Even so, Hieda indicated airlines are asking what suppliers can do to help them show customers they are safe.
“An important part is informing passengers about the safety measures implemented and steps passengers should take while onboard,” said Safran VP Products and Strategy Ben Asmar. “This is where IFEC systems can perform a critical communication role by showing procedures taking place to ensure the aircraft is clean and protects their safety. While this is not a new enhancement, it is an example where airlines can leverage existing investments in IFEC to communicate vital information to passengers.”
But is more than the on-board experience, said Hickox, noting passenger concerns about the boarding and pre-boarding environment. Their desire for social distancing and visible hygiene practices including toilets are driving many Collins’ initiatives.
“Airlines must ensure they are sharing their sanitization policies and practices by pushing out that information on PEDs,” she said. “Reducing shared surfaces and passenger interactions.”
Collins has three Emerging Technology teams charged with implementing leading-edge, ready-now technology needed for passengers to move safely and confidently through the various travel touchpoints.
Collins efforts fall into two main categories – biometrics and the self-service technologies aiming to get passengers into and through the airport as quickly as possible.
With no application installation necessary, and part of a suite that is the first full-contactless airport experience, its Kiosk Connect enables users to scan a QR code with their mobile device to complete check in. It has coupled this technology with its secure biometric solutions.
Collins’ ARINC SelfPass system completes a passenger’s contactless journey through the use of a single token ID driven by secure biometrics. SelfPass can be applied check-in, immigration and security, lounge access and boarding. Each step can be completed in a matter of seconds with no need to present traditional boarding and identification documents. Travelers simply step up to the camera for a facial match against the biometrics database to determine whether they are authorized to board. When the image matches, the gate opens.
Airlines Still Need Time
Glain said airlines need to have clearer skies before making big investments to meet new pandemic-related passenger expectations. With the confusion surrounding vaccine distribution, some analysts expect vaccine distribution to take well into 2022.
Panasonic is exploring potential partnerships with Detalytic to integrate health advisory applications into seatback systems and passengers’ mobile devices.
It already has monitoring equipment in its seats and introduced analytics to help normalize sleep patterns and light therapy to help passengers adjust their body clock faster. Seat-back screens could be paired with software and a camera to enable the monitoring of passenger mood, stress and other potential inflight emotions and problems.
AERQ is also studying health monitoring. “We are considering how we can monitor passenger health conditions because this is not just about Covid-19 but personal health conditions might have risks at a later time,” said Lee. The silver lining here is difficult times tend to diminish the this-is-how-it-has-always-been-done mentality.
“Embracing the new realities of how passengers want to fly, new product introductions and new experiences onboard will continue to change the offerings available,” concluded Hieda. “We do believe that designing a digital ecosystem that incorporates all of the airlines’ touchpoints not as isolated, discrete parts but as engagements that flow, blend, and transfer from one to the next, will begin to take shape as we incorporate the IFEC system into that thread. That frictionless experience enables, if airlines want, the introduction of things like personalized offers, suggested experiences, and meaningful transactions – all sprinkled throughout the journey.”
Signaling Real Change
“We are developing technology that will signal to the passenger that returning to the skies is now completely different,” said Lee. “There will be new protocols and new cabins but new experiences need to evident immediately.”
Perhaps nothing signals a changed cabin experience than AERQ’s OLED ceiling panels depicting the night sky or auroras. The technology created a splash and comes far in advance of Airbus transparent hull concepts and brings a whole new meaning to the sky interior.
Collins Aerospace and Safran Aerosystems are also looking at this technology. Panasonic offers short-throw projectors enabling airlines to project starry skies, sunsets, sunrises and other time-of-day lighting onto the cabin ceiling.
As AirAsia illustrates, Covid offers airlines the opportunity to create a new relationship with passengers beyond personalizing the on-board experience. The question is, will they grab it.