Taking Flight: Onboard Wi-Fi in Asia Pacific

Otto Gergye, Inmarsat's vice president for Asia Pacific
Otto Gergye, Inmarsat’s vice president for Asia Pacific

In recent years, the Asia Pacific region – the world’s fastest growing aviation market – has been seeing rapid development and increasing popularity in in-flight connectivity (IFC). While IFC may still be in its infancy in this region, passengers’ interests are piqued, and excitement and anticipation for what’s to come has hit a new high.

Last year, market intelligence firm Valour Consultancy predicted that in the Asia Pacific region alone, the number of connected aircraft will increase more than tenfold from 333 in 2015 to 5,193 by 20251 – indicating exciting times ahead in this fast-growing market. But what does this mean for airlines?

One size fits all? Afraid not

The expectations of passengers in the APAC region vary significantly between markets, posing a challenge for IFC in the region. Passengers from advanced Asian markets, such as Korea and Japan, are accustomed to ubiquitous high-speed connectivity on the ground, and would thus expect a similar service 30,000ft above ground. Business passengers in particular expect to be able to work with seamless connection for almost the entire flight.

Leisure travellers on the other hand, rely significantly on social media channels such as WhatsApp, Facebook and Instagram. Southeast Asia has some of the highest social media penetration rates in the world however, the platforms favoured in each market vary, and some of these may not be commonplace in the western world. In China, for instance, Facebook is blocked and the most popular online hangouts include Tencent QQ and Sina Weibo. Although Australia and New Zealand are similar to Europe or North America in culture, internet habits in these markets do not differ greatly from their counterparts in Asia, not least because of strong Asian influences.

While different markets may utilise different apps, they eventually use them for the same purpose of social media engagement. Hence, while the platform and content may differ, the amount of time spent and way IFC is used for social media channels is very similar across markets, which is of key relevance to inflight broadband providers.

IFC is fast becoming an important factor in passengers’ purchasing decisions

Fliers in Asia Pacific are eager and already asking if IFC is available – a recent survey conducted by Inmarsat found two-thirds (67%) of passengers in the region now regard IFC as an expectation rather than a novelty. This is even more prevalent among business travellers, 92% of which are willing to pay for Wi-Fi on long-haul business flights, with close to half (48%) of business travellers feeling that the lack of inflight Wi-Fi is equivalent to wasted time. Business travellers see connectivity as an “easy to justify expense” when purchasing flight tickets, as compared to other frills like inflight entertainment, to ensure they stay connected and not miss out on any business emails and correspondence.

At this point in time, airline passengers in the region are starting to pay for in-flight Wi-Fi on budget airlines, or have it included in the ticket price for premium carriers. Different payment models connected to usage are also being introduced, with airlines such as Virgin Australia and Qantas recently rolling out their offering. One thing is for sure, however it’s delivered, there’s no denying the quantum shift in airlines’ thinking, stemming from passenger demand.

Airlines will be pressuring governments to enable them to offer Wi-Fi in-flight

In China, IFC has become a hot topic particularly with the new legislation to relax the ban on passengers using devices while on board. Several APAC airlines are already out of the starting blocks, including Cathay Pacific, Japan Airlines, ANA and EVA Air. Singapore Airlines and Air New Zealand have already signed up Inmarsat’s GX Aviation – which solves the problem of the traditional ‘black spots’ of coverage in the region – as has Air New Zealand. Finnair, which has positioned itself as a bridge between Europe and Asia, is using IFC to revive its inflight e-commerce offering, taking it beyond the traditional duty free trolley.

Emirates will double its in-flight Wi-Fi limit in economy class
An increasing number of airlines are offering In-flight Wi-Fi

A challenge for all connectivity providers in the region is the regulatory environment. Unlike in the US and Canada and the EU, there is no single regulatory body. In either of these places, airlines can fly vast distances and be subject to just one set of rules. In this part of the world, however, taking a flight from Brisbane to Bangkok could involve flying over Australian, New Guinean, Indonesian, Malaysian and Thai airspace – each with different regulations and rules. There are huge variations in technological sophistication and their governments operate at different speeds and in different ways.

Amid the changing regulations and legislations, coupled with varying levels of needs and demands from passengers, one thing is for sure: passengers are now expecting more than just onboard connectivity when they board their next flight – they want reliable, good quality IFC. 52% of passengers in APAC would even stop using their preferred airline in the next year if it offered poor quality Wi-Fi.

It’s hard to give an exact timeline for developments in Asian connectivity and, of course, there will still be time lag between airlines signing up connectivity and when it’s available to passengers, as in reality, it takes a number of years to fit entire fleets. Nonetheless, by the end of 2018, inflight connectivity will become increasingly commonplace as airlines seek to develop their competitive advantage.

Without a doubt, it is a tremendously exciting time to be involved in APAC connectivity.

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