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Look around the boarding gate at any airport. Judging by the number of earbuds, charging ports and mobile devices in use, there is no denying that today’s travelers are multitaskers. In fact, today nearly 90 percent of all passengers travel with at least one personal electronic device (PED), and the number of passengers carrying multiple Internet-enabled PEDs for talk, text, streaming video and listening to music – often at the same time – continues to surge.

Creating effective cabin solutions in this new information age calls for our industry to look at the world differently, finding new ways to meet customer needs while protecting and even enhancing the bottom line. Airlines, manufacturers and service providers are actively exploring, developing, enhancing and implementing the tools and technologies that address passengers’ needs today and their desires for tomorrow.

A new paradigm: passenger engagement

In this environment, our current industry term, in- flight entertainment (IFE), is woefully inadequate to describe what the passengers of 2016 want to do on their journey. While IFEC – with the “C” standing for connectivity – is a step in the right direction, we really should be thinking about a whole new term: passenger engagement.

Passengers are engaged with their mobile devices from the time they leave home to the moment the airlines close the aircraft door. And they’re seeking and even expecting to link their earth-bound connection with their flying experience.

For instance, consider the plethora of things you may see a single passenger do while in flight: A game or two on their smartphone. Maybe a movie, or an episode of “NCIS” on the iPad. A little work on a presentation or spreadsheets and some email or messaging with the office on their laptop. A chapter of the latest John Grisham novel while listening to some music. Not to mention thinking about the next airline connection or how to most quickly get to ground transportation.

What can we do to curate cabin solutions that engage each passenger throughout his or her experience? The answer to that question offers an engineering challenge with great opportunities to meet today’s and tomorrow’s expectations:

  • Games, movies, music and even digital books can be made accessible to personal devices from centralized servers on board, some free and some monetized. All of those consumption choices are recorded in passengers’ personal preferences – stored online and on their devices – so they don’t have to start over every time. It’s not hard to even imagine the capability to start watching a movie on one flight and finish it up on the next leg.
  • But entertainment is only the start: Personalizing the passenger’s experience from frequent flier data and previous selections makes for an Amazon/Google-style relationship, leveraging up-to-date information to bring great value to the passenger and the opportunity for the airline to enhance the service capability. Passengers can order drinks or indicate meal or snack preferences via a smart app. Or, if the passengers prefer, they can simply expect that flight attendants will know their drink and meal preferences, improving efficiency and customer satisfaction. Duty-free orders and shopping can be completed instantly thanks to on-board credit card authorization. Even their window shade or reading light preferences can be stored to ensure a highly tailored experience.
  • While airlines today usually charge for high-speed connectivity, we will see airlines be more willing to look at connectivity as a free service, to build loyalty and enhance revenue as a result of the almost unlimited things connectivity can bring to the passenger while in flight.
  • The experience of travel is one of unknowns and uncertainties. Since we will know passengers’ travel plans from home to hotel, we can help them along the journey to reduce travel stress and make flying an easier experience for all. Whether it’s providing directions on the quickest way to their next leg through a busy airport; tracking their baggage in real time throughout the trip; providing up-to-the-minute weather forecasts; or serving up coupons and travel advice custom-selected for their final destination.

Delivering on the promise of high-speed connectivity

In this 24/7 connected world, the outcry for constant connectivity has gone from a shout to an uproar. Passengers are looking for the ability to move their totally connected digital life from home and office to the airport and the aircraft cabin.

Today, I believe we’ve hit a tipping point in the business case for connectivity on an ever-growing number of aircraft. Even as the demand for high-speed connectivity soars, costs are plummeting, technological capability is skyrocketing and hardware size and weight are shrinking. These advancements not only make the traditional cost-benefit analysis a must for long-haul twin-aisle carriers, but are also making it more alluring for short-haul, single-aisle jets as well.

With next-generation connectivity, more passengers surf the Internet, send and receive email and use social networking and text messaging on mobile devices. Additionally, anything that is traditionally paper-based can be transmitted while in flight, creating efficiencies through more on-time flights through faster gate turns, while enhancing value to passengers through personalization.

We are seeing exciting new movement forward.  Companies including Inmarsat, Iridium and industry newcomer OneWeb are offering higher speeds and larger bandwidth. Inmarsat’s latest-generation Global Xpress (GX) constellation is designed specifically for the fast-moving mobile aircraft environment. With GX, passengers will be able to remain in constant touch with the world below, surfing the Web, updating Facebook or checking email at speeds previously unimaginable.

Getting a broader pipe to the aircraft is only part of the battle. The next step is the “final inch”: having an on-board wireless routing system that reliably and consistently delivers that high-speed connectivity to a wide variety of devices and possibly hundreds of passengers. Innovations from a company recently acquired by Rockwell Collins have broken that barrier, and planeloads of passengers will quickly be able to experience something much more akin to home performance levels, even at 40,000 feet.

Flexible solutions for flexible situations

At the core of every cabin solution are some key tenets: reliability, performance, ease of use and content management. But beyond those core elements, the needs of each airline are nearly as diverse as those of the passengers they serve. They can run the gamut from cabin solutions driven by a desire to generate additional revenue, to the desire to create brand loyalty through an extraordinary customer engagement experience. Having a business model flexible enough to address airlines’ needs – wherever they are on that spectrum – will be essential to ensuring airlines and passengers each achieve their desires.

The business case for the information age

Today’s cabin experience has evolved from a relatively passive entertainment experience to one of passenger engagement. To ensure passenger satisfaction and loyalty, we must meet their higher expectations – while also ensuring that airlines achieve their goals. The advent of new connectivity technology, advanced wireless cabin networks and applications that “listen to the market” will be a win-win for passengers and airlines alike. By working in close partnership between airlines, manufacturers and even passengers themselves, we can continue to develop the richer, more engaging experiences that will meet and exceed those expectations, and position airlines and the entire industry for success.