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Wi-Fi access takes to the sky

Growing number of Asian and Gulf carriers installing in-flight connectivity capabilities, giving rise to whole new experience in air travel, note market players and observers.
Written by Tyler Thia, Contributor

Staying connected in the air will soon be an accessible experience for passengers in this part of the world, as an increasing number of Asian and Gulf airlines move to install Wi-Fi capabilities across their fleet.

Cathay Pacific and Emirates, for instance, have announced plans to provide wireless Internet connectivity onboard their aircraft in 2012.

OnAir, a provider of inflight connectivity services, this week also revealed that they are in talks with major airlines in the region. Amongst them, carrier Hong Kong Airlines has confirmed it will partner OnAir to offer a connectivity services suite that includes Mobile OnAir for mobile telephony and Internet OnAir for Wi-Fi access, on their new fleet of Airbus A330s.

The airliner said tapping an extensive and advanced infrastructure, along with Inmarsat fourth generation satellites, will allow for the broadest range of inflight connectivity options available today.

Similarly, Emirates has also chosen to partner OnAir and suit up 90 Airbus A380s with in-flight communications capabilities. The first fully-equipped aircraft is scheduled to go live with the new services in 2012.

However, Cathay Pacific and Dragon Air have upped the ante by overhauling their respective In-flight Entertainment System (IFE) with Panasonic Avionic's broadband connectivity offering, Global Communications Suite.

To be rolled-out across both airlines' entire fleet, the new system is touted to not only allow for laptop and mobile phone connection to the Internet--with download speeds of up to 50Mbps--but will also feature new entertainment options including a digitized version of the inflight magazine and live television streaming.

Onboard Net access to be pervasive
OnAir CEO Ian Dawkins is confident more airlines will jump on the bandwagon and provide inflight Internet access.

"That will influence other airlines to provide the service [and reach a] point where in the next five years and out, inflight connectivity will become a requirement for airlines [to support] as much as other items in the cabin," Dawkins said.

However, Air Asia X does not believe onboard Internet access will become a necessity as costs remain a major concern for the long-haul budget carrier. CEO Azra Osman-Rani told ZDNet Asia that data transmission costs via satellite is still prohibitive, hence, the airline is not inclined to rush onto the bandwagon.

For a carrier that is dependent on ancillary charges, AirAsia X maintains it will only offer a service if prices can be kept low.

Osman-Rani said: "The problem isn't about what we want to charge but the high satellite transmission costs. If it costs more than the typical Internet service fees that hotels charge, we won't launch it."

Aviation analyst at Standards & Poor's, Shukor Yusof echoes the view. He believes high implementation costs will push carriers, such as Singapore Airlines (SIA), to maintain a "wait-and-see" attitude.

"SIA is a savvy airline and will introduce a product only if there's sufficient demand, and if it can recoup the costs of implementing it. I don't see them to be in a hurry to introduce a similar product," Shukor told ZDNet Asia in an e-mail interview.

SIA had inked a partnership with Connexion by Boeing to offer in-flight Wi-Fi services in 2003, but the service fell by the wayside after the service provider closed down.

While Connexion by Boeing failed, other market players have persisted such as Gogo Inflight which provides for airlines Virgin America and Delta. Passengers on these airlines are offered a host of service packages ranging from US$4.95 for a 1.5 hours flight, to US$39.95 for unlimited usage for 30 days on any flights equipped with Gogo's offerings.

According to research firm In-Stat, the investment required to enable inflight Wi-Fi services including installation costs and implementation time has reduced significantly, making it feasible for carriers to get wired up. For example, it costs US$100, 000 to US$200, 000 to install Wi-Fi equipment, as compared to US$500, 000 in the early 2000s. The weight of the equipment has also lightened from 1000 pounds to between 100 and 150 pounds per aircraft.

Gogo Inflight, which is part of AirCell, is expected to dominate 75 percent of the U.S. market share by end-2010, according to In-Stat. The research firm also expects total in-flight broadband equipment investment to reach US$500 million by 2013 where close to 2,000 airplanes will be wired up.

Tech evolution hits the skies
With a wider rollout of in-flight connectivity, air travel could see further development as social networking tools head to the clouds. The advent of affordable in-flight connection can also open up a whole new aviation ballgame, not just in marketing but also in the enhancement of onboard services.

An article by ZDNet Asia's sister site CNET News highlighted an incident where Virgin America responded in record time after a passenger provided feedback on a less-than-satisfactory sandwich via the airline's in-flight e-mail service. A ground customer service agent had followed up immediately to the customer's feedback.

In-Stat analyst Frank Dickson believes inflight Wi-Fi can make a difference in passenger purchasing options, especially for long-haul flights, where the demand for a wide range of entertainment options is greater.

AirAsia X, which leverages heavily on social networking for marketing, also expects the business of flying to revolutionize if Wi-Fi is eventually rolled out onboard the airliner's flights.

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