Airlines wary of inflight connectivity disruption

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PARIS  — Airline customers are well aware of the financial troubles plaguing satellite-enabled inflight connectivity providers.

“This is what keeps me up at night,” Amanda Fish, Delta Airlines onboard products general manager, said Sept. 10 at the World Satellite Business Week conference here. “Should something catastrophic happen, we will feel the effects of it.”

Delta Airlines, Etihad Airways and Norwegian Air Shuttle offer Wi-Fi on every aircraft in their fleets.

“For Delta connectivity is table stakes,” Fish said. “There is no world where we don’t have a fleet equipped with connectivity.”

Similarly, there is no debate at Etihad Airways about connectivity. “It’s part of the furniture,” said Quentin Couturier, Etihad fleet development senior manager. “Just like we have seats, we have connectivity.”

Throughout the airline industry, about one-third of aircraft are equipped with WiFi. Airlines have plans to install WiFi on another 20 percent. Full saturation of the air transport market could occur in 2027 or 2028, said David Brunder, the Aviation Communications Advisors chief executive who moderated the inflight connectivity panel discussion.

In spite of that promise, inflight connectivity providers are struggling.

In April, Panasonic Avionics agreed to pay the U.S. government $280.6 million to resolve bribery charges. GoGo plans layoffs and an end to airline equipment subsidies as it explores options including splitting the company. Global Eagle filed late financial documents to the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission earlier this year and hired two chief executives in 13 months.

Airlines are keeping close tabs on these events and maintaining communications with their inflight connectivity providers.

“We are constantly in touch with all the suppliers and service providers,” Couturier said. That doesn’t necessarily prevent future problems, he added.

“If something goes terribly wrong, we would suffer badly before we could recover,” Couturier said.

Etihad has experienced connectivity problems before. The airline adopted Connexion by Boeing, one of the first inflight connectivity services, in 2005.

“It went overnight from something that worked pretty well to something that was switched off,” Couturier said, leaving Etihad with a useless antenna on its aircraft.

Couturier is encouraged by varied combinations of service providers and hardware manufacturers, which could provide alternatives in cases of service disruption. “It is going in the right direction, but it is too slow,” he said.

Norwegian Air Shuttle seeks to maintain inflight connectivity by working with its current partners in a way that makes both parties successful. If certain providers go out of business, Norwegian Air Shuttle, will “deal with it then,” said Boris Bubresko, business development vice president. “If it happens, it happens.”