Last updated: Here’s why airlines are finally going to improve their in-flight digital experiences

Here’s why airlines are finally going to improve their in-flight digital experiences


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A few years ago, Peter Shankman, an entrepreneur and social media pioneer, realized he had just two weeks to finish a book manuscript. As Cal Newport details in his book Deep Work, Shankman met this challenge by doing something unusual: He booked a round-trip flight to Tokyo. When he got to Tokyo, he had an espresso and turned around and flew home. As he later explained, the plane trip was his only respite from the world. The Spartan environment helped him focus and get the job done.

It’s safe to say that Shankman’s conception of flying – as a sort of sensory deprivation tank in the sky – is a minority view. Research shows that most consumers at least want the option to use digital media to entertain themselves during flights or get work done that requires Internet access. In particular, they want Wi-Fi.

For various reasons, most airlines have been slow to address this need and have done so with sub-par services. That’s changing, ushering in a new type of digitally enhanced flight experience that also presents valuable marketing opportunities.

Wi-Fi wanted

Poll after poll shows that consumers want Wi-Fi on their flights  – and the cheaper and stronger the better. A 2014 survey from Honeywell, for instance, found that 30% of consumers said they would swap flights or fly on standby to fly on a different plane with better Wi-Fi. Another survey, by GfK, found 54% of passengers said Wi-Fi connectivity was more important on a flight than food.

There’s no mystery as to why. Some 46% of consumers told Pew Research last year that they couldn’t live without their smartphone. Of course, a smartphone is fairly useless without connectivity.

Despite this huge demand, you have just a 36% chance of getting Wi-Fi on a flight globally, according to Routehappy. In the U.S., some 71% of planes offer Wi-Fi now.

Why the holdup?

Though Wi-Fi is a big selling point for airlines, there are reasons why consumers still grumble. Just 6% of planes meet Routehappy’s definition of “best Wi-Fi,” for instance. Often speeds are slow, performance is spotty, and prices range from free to $16 for 24-hour access.

But that’s changing. Typically airlines have used air-to-ground transmission for Wi-Fi, which offers spotty service. Providers like Gogo Wireless are planning to swap in faster satellite-based transmission in the near future. Gogo is working on its own satellite service called 2Ku, which is being installed in many planes this year. Consumers might see an improvement in Wi-Fi performance in 12 to 24 months.

Outliers and Opportunities

While many airlines are struggling to provide decent Wi-Fi, some are looking ahead to see how digital technology might improve the in-flight experience. No airline has tested this idea more than Virgin Atlantic, which has done everything from host and stream a concert during a flight to arrange a visit from Santa Claus during a London-Boston run during the 2014 holiday season.

Aside from those stunts, Virgin Atlantic has also tested free Netflix for passengers. JetBlue, another airline focused on improving the in-flight experience, has partnered with Amazon for a similar streaming program.

For travel marketers, this access to digital communication opens up new opportunities to reach travelers with timely messages. In travel, the consumer journey can be divided into four segments – interest, pre-trip, on-trip and post-trip. Digital media on flights lets marketers reach consumers during the “in-trip” segment. The downtime on flights could be turned into shopping experiences, for instance. Travelers en route to Spain might be interested in seeing what kind of hotel deals or day trip experiences are possible. Some 45.3% of travelers said they’d use a tablet to make a last-minute booking up to a week before their stay. Overall, the conversion rates for real-time offers in travel is 65%, compared to 37% for multi-channel retailers, according to a 2013 Experian study.

For airlines, offering consumers the option to choose their own entertainment and media will inevitably lead to higher satisfaction since they address pent-up demand. Happily, for consumers like Shankman there will be solitude as well, as fellow passengers are absorbed in their Internet-based entertainment. For such travelers, there’s always the option not to log on.

Every digital moment matters.
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