As pandemic restrictions continue, safety isn’t passengers’ only concern when slowly retaking to the skies. They still want a pleasant in-flight experience with entertainment, connectivity, and services that become standard throughout the industry.
“COVID-19 has quickened the evolution of in-flight entertainment into a digital engagement platform,” says Joe Leader, CEO of the Airline Passenger Experience Association (APEX). “Customers should be able to move from their home environment to mobile to in-flight, being treated securely as an individual.”
That’s why airlines, big and small, are using in-flight entertainment and communications (IFEC) to entice flyers back on board. One example of an airline making big moves there is new basic airline ZIPAIR, a Japan Airlines subsidiary. ZIPAIR is taking IFEC a step further by offering free in-flight connectivity and streaming to passengers’ own devices. It’s a great example of pairing proactiveness in technology deployments with strategic partnerships to provide a service customers crave.
In 2021, the industry will be striving to return to some semblance of normal. Let’s look at how IFEC can help get us there.
Tackling COVID Concerns with IFEC
One of the biggest concerns for airlines is hygiene-minded flyers’ hesitancy to interact with IFE screens and aircraft interiors. Some airlines may be wondering about eliminating screens altogether, in favor of bring-your-own-device (BYOD) as an interface for in-flight entertainment. Others see BYOD as a complement to seat-back screens—as a controller, as a multi-screening tool, or as another way to access the full suite of IFE and connectivity options.
“For every airline worldwide, bring-your-own-device has become an absolute minimum for all customers,” Leader from APEX explains. “The price point compared to the customer satisfaction increase pays incredible dividends for airlines.”
Mobile devices have inherent benefits: they remember where you stopped your movie, they remember where you were in your eBook, they store all your playlists.
“A mobile phone remembers where I stopped watching a movie or left off in a game at home,” says Leader. “IFEC as a digital entertainment platform should be able to do the same.”
Technology companies in the industry are creating solutions that pair customers’ on-the-ground profiles with their in-flight ones. A simpler solution still could be mirroring; allowing seat-back screens to display what is shown on a phone or tablet screen.
They’re also working on multiplying the uses of the IFEC system—for instance, connecting it to call buttons to permit socially distanced communications with cabin crew. “Text and voice messages sent via IFE saves a trip and allows flight attendants to deal with requests more efficiently,” Leader adds.
ZIPAIR Offering Unique IFEC Solutions
Post-COVID usage of BYOD, touchless, and other tech-enabled strategies isn’t just theoretical. ZIPAIR is already leading the way in IFEC strategies that make for a safe and comfortable journey.
Part of its bold decision-making comes from the unique position ZIPAIR started up in: not only is it a new startup airline, but it is also defining its own airline business model—all while trying to account for COVID.
“Rather than putting ourselves in the low-cost carrier box, we’ve examined and formulated our service to become a ‘new basic’ airline,” ZIPAIR’s Manager of Strategy and Development Nishiyama Masahiro explains. The “new basic” concept means providing the comfort and satisfaction from business class at affordable prices.
The company partnered with Panasonic Avionics to enhance its passenger experience by offering free in-flight connectivity, which enables its streaming services. ZIPAIR’s offer of free Wi-Fi, no strings attached, is one not many carriers have yet dared to make.
While Wi-Fi has traditionally been considered a service to be monetized in-flight, offering connectivity at little to no charge might be a key strategy for carriers of all sizes, especially as they prepare for post-COVID recovery. We already know it is an extremely attractive selling point and difference-maker to passengers.
“Eventually I think other companies will follow suit in terms of offering free Wi-Fi,” Masahiro says. “It’s reminiscent of how some of the first digital self-ordering systems were adopted by low-cost carriers before it caught on to the entire industry.”
It’s a bold move that may make a big impact on the airline’s sustainability—and perhaps even on the larger industry.
“Eventually I think other companies will follow suit in terms of offering free Wi-Fi. It’s reminiscent of how some of the first digital self-ordering systems were adopted by low-cost carriers before it caught on to the entire industry.”Nishiyama Masahiro
ZIPAIR’s Manager of Strategy and Development
Looking at IFEC Innovation On the Horizon
ZIPAIR’s approach to BYOD and free Wi-Fi is an indication of how IFEC innovation might be critical in getting travelers back in the skies. APEX’s Leader, meanwhile, thinks other cutting-edge and developing technologies can help push the limits of the passenger experience.
For instance, he points to gesture and eye control. Imagine passengers being able to change their in-flight movies or ordering a drink with a simple facial motion or blink of an eye—no touching required. “Just as smartphones moved all of us to embrace touchscreens, I believe mobile devices will also pave the comfort for gesture and eye control future technologies,” he says.
He also predicts innovations in IFEC seat-back tech itself: “New electronics technologies will enable screens that approach the thinness, lightness, and form of seat-back plastic.”
And combined with cloud-based content updates, he says, the total cost of ownership for IFEC systems will continually decrease. This should enable lower total costs for both airlines and passengers.
Very few other industries hold the attention of a captive audience for hours on end like air travel. ZIPAIR is one example of how airlines can take an innovative approach in both comforting and entertaining that audience in the wake of the pandemic. IFEC will be just one component in a holistic approach that will help the industry flourish again come next year, concludes Leader.
“Providing clear assurances, enabling customer engagement, and creating a new normal will best serve our global air travel market as it recovers,” he says.