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The onboard retail market might be booming but, as Sally White reports, it’s littered with obstacles and constraints

Inflight bugs of the technical rather than biological kind get the airlines money. That’s a priority with which not all passengers may agree! For cash-hungry airlines, plane connectivity with the attendant revenue earning opportunities heads the lists. Yet, many airlines don’t realise that there are a lot of expensive glitzes in interoperability ahead.

According to international airline association SITA, by the end of next year, two-thirds of the world’s airlines expect to operate fully connected aircraft, up just over a third in 2016. SITA’s latest trends report shows that mobile app development is a top priority among airlines and airports.

Another technology that is catching the attention of the industry is chatbots, says the report. Currently around 14% of airlines and 9% of airports already use chatbots which “shows that there is significant appetite among air transport CIOs to go for this technology over the next three years”. By 2020, 68% of airlines and 42% of airports plan to adopt AI-driven chatbot services.

By 2020, 68% of airlines and 42% of airports plan to adopt AI-driven chatbot services

Another interesting finding is that over the next three years 94% of airlines and 82% of airports plan major mobile programmes or R&D. The main area of focus is said to be in the commercialisation of their mobile services with airlines looking to boost both direct and ancillary sales via their apps.

“In fact, airlines expect sales via their mobile apps to double by 2020 and reach 17% of their total sales. Streamlining services into one single app to deliver a seamless experience is a priority for almost every airline (94%) and a high priority for more than half (58%),” continues the report.

Assuming that they have them, SITA even proffers the idea that passengers would prefer to enjoy entertainment inflight on their own devices – something that rail companies like Eurostar are partnering to deliver. Such a move would enable airlines to ditch the back-of-the-seat screen and save themselves a chunk of weight and thus a bit more money!

Inflight connectivity’s revenue-producing possibilities are put at $32 billion over the next decade as air travel continues to grow and passengers get used to the services, according to North Sky Research. Jetblue, which added its Fly-Fi network around three years ago, has said it’s a bit surprised about how passengers liked to shop.

Airlines, says Michael Reyes, director of customer centricity at Sabre Airline Solutions, have “always been chasing ways to find new revenues. The big difference now is the connectivity. They can have a lot more data piped up to the plane.”

The big difference now is the connectivity [on planes]. They can have a lot more data piped up to the plane

The onboard retail market is growing at a 13% rate, year over year, according to Craig Proud, senior vice president for platform at GuestLogix.

Realising opportunities, facing challenges 

However, the path to realising these opportunities is littered with “potential obstacles and constraints,” says Craig Foster of Valour Consultancy. “There are operational limitations and compatibilities across platforms, technologies, fleets and service providers own proprietary systems,” he writes on SITA’s website.

Anytime now, as more airlines try to connect up their passengers, there will be a rude awakening, he adds. Valour and others, such as Singapore Airlines, are advocating as a preemptive solution the adoption of open architecture and common service provision.

One such solution comes from SITAONAIR, a company originally developed with Airbus, but sold out to SITA. Its services were launched seven years ago on Oman Air, and its onboard system is based on a wifi access point and/or a GSM picocell connected to the ground through a satellite link. Key technical partners include Aeroconseil, Carlisle Interconnect Technologies, Honeywell, Inmarsat, KID-Systeme, SIA Engineering, and Zodiac Inflight Innovations.

SITAONAIR’s inflight mobile telephony service, Mobile ONAIR, is deployed on over 20 of the world’s long-haul airlines, across more than 500 aircraft.

There are operational limitations and compatibilities across platforms, technologies, fleets and service providers own proprietary systems

In full flow, SITAONAIR VP of Strategy, Dominique El Bez describes what the company does in a press statement as “establishing high-speed inflight broadband; empowering passengers to maintain their digital lives and freedoms when they fly, with onboard wifi and mobile telephony…”

He goes on to add “...digitising cabin crews to tailor the onboard passenger experience by making passenger profile data accessible at the touch of a button; helping airline customers enhance ROI by partnering with chosen sponsors to deliver exclusive inflight offers; to paving the way for new Internet of Aircraft Things innovations, enabling crews and passengers to interact through devices inflight.”

However, to prove it is really right up with the latest on in-air technology, SITONAIR announced just a few days ago its entry into the ‘Drone Age’. In collaboration with skyguide, AirMap, senseFly and PX4, and with the support of the Swiss Federal Office of Civil Aviation, it has developed a drone registry as the foundation layer for U-space capabilities.

SITAONAIR CTO Gregory Ouillon explained to the press that “we and the European Union anticipate an explosion in the number of drones flying in our airspace over the next 20 years. That’s not just for leisure pursuits, but most importantly, commercial drones for retail, surveillance, inspection, agriculture, industry and more.”

So, while plane connectivity may not as yet be guaranteed or bug-free, here is the stuff of dreams for future air-travel-systems for drones and UAVs. And, even more appealing to airlines in a summer full of pilot disputes, the growing prospect of pilotless planes.

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