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From Cabin to Cockpit: Emirates Progressive Connectivity Strategy

As IFC enters a crucial new era, Emirates is poised to be one of the leaders in providing a new range of services. We talk to two of Emirates’ top execs, on the operations and passenger experience sides, to see where their IFC strategy goes next.

Emirates now has Wi-Fi on more than 85 percent of its fleet and the airline expects that to reach near 100 percent by the end of this year. Patrick Brannelly, divisional vice president of customer experience (In-Flight Entertainment and Connectivity, IFEC) told GCA Link that live TV is currently available on more than 50 percent of its aircraft, including 14 of its 93 A380s, and people can use their own mobile phones on nearly 90 percent of its aircraft. During 2017 the airline is working to improve the customer experience by simplify the sign on process and enabling more efficiency, according to Brannelly. “Connectivity has become a basic requirement and Emirates has been investing tens of millions of dollars upgrading our fleet so passengers can connect. Mobile phone telephony (voice, Short Message Service (SMS) and data) remain popular but the real demand is for Wi-Fi/internet,” he said.

Each month about 800,000 people connect to Wi-Fi on Emirates flights and Brannelly thinks such numbers reveal the popularity and need for connectivity, and that this can no longer be questioned. However, Brannelly does not believe that Emirates will be in a position to offer the service for free to passengers. “Everyone wants free connectivity, of course, and we’d love to provide it. The reality is data remains incredibly expensive and is still charged largely on a per megabyte cost. Airlines run on incredibly tight margins and need to remain profitable to succeed, so free will be a challenge for years to come,” he says.

Emirates’ B777-300ER.Boeing

The question is how does Emirates view the return on this investment? After all, the airline has invested nearly $200 million on connectivity in recent years. “Customers appreciate great product, great value for money and loyal customers are good for business. Imagine a hotel without Wi-Fi, they’d save a lot on capital expenditure but probably don’t have many customers these days… so what’s the cost of not doing something may be the right question,” Brannelly says.

The question on connectivity on Emirates’ flights is particularly prevalent given the recent ban on laptops and tablets on certain flights to the United States and United Kingdom. So, will this travel ban impact Emirates’ connectivity strategy here? “We have always believed in the passenger preference for a nice big TV at every seat, loaded with thousands of entertainment choices. It will affect airlines that believe in the Bring Your Own Device (BYOD) IFE model. They will need to reassess that thinking. Interestingly, 90 percent of people on U.S. routes already connect with a smartphone versus a tablet or laptop,” Brannelly says.

However, Brannelly admits it is a technical challenge. “It’s really complex to get internet working at 40,000 feet at 500mph, and you need to focus on incredible detail. We investigate a huge number of technical issues and discover nuances all the time, then improve the service. Even new phone operating systems often bring in new challenges with sign-up. Passengers really want connectivity but most take this incredible technology for granted,” he says.

Operations

While Emirates constantly works hard to improve the overall passenger experience, it can also use connectivity to improve its overall operations. It is involved on many projects on the operations side, and is now testing its Emirates Pilot Tablets (EPT), which is key to its digital transformation strategy. It is also focusing on the next generation of flight operation apps through a mobility project and preparing for the 777X entry into service. “We have rolled out EPTs to all of our pilots, which included the fundamental EFB applications that will take us towards paperless operation. This obviously includes other dependencies such as a mounting device to secure the device and charging capability to assure and sustain the availability of the EPT throughout the trip,” says Captain Hassan Alhammadi, Emirates’ senior vice president of flight operations technical. “Our pilot mobility project will focus on bringing the next generation of applications such as real time weather, a next-gen document reader, and a door-to-door selection of applications that will aid the pilots in their daily operations. The type of innovation that excites me is the one that reduces the pilot’s workload at peak demanding phases.”

So, what difference can a connected aircraft make in terms of overall efficiency? “Some of the connected applications can bring some operational benefits and fuel savings such as the ones that look at optimal altitudes and routings. Other applications can bring more efficiencies such as enhancing the on-time performance by presenting all the required data to the pilot, network control, dispatch, maintenance and other departments,” Alhammadi says.

When asked what he is looking for in terms of new apps, Alhammadi says he would like to see “a bit more flexibility” built in to address varying airline requirements driven by their nature of operation, fleet type and network area.

Emirates customized Executive A319Emirates

Emirates treats connectivity as a basic requirement when placing new aircraft orders. When new aircraft are delivered with a level of connectivity it gives each department the chance to realize the benefits from a connected aircraft. Connectivity has the potential to make a huge difference in terms of operations. “You have the potential to move some of the safety data and applications such as wireless Quick Access Recorders (QARs) and live weather updates over the air. Secondly, you are moving away from the manual processes such as updating the aircraft EFB and having all the relevant data to the flight crew at all times. Finally, you are capturing most of the data and using it to validate existing processes and future enhancements,” Alhammadi says.

The perception right now is the use of operational connectivity is somewhat limited, somewhat costly, and not widespread “We hope that airlines, vendors and regulators work closer together to make connectivity more accessible and highly used than the current level that aviation at right now,” Alhammadi says. “Wi-Fi and roaming were not cheap and widespread, but look at it now — everywhere you go you get some sort of almost free connection and I hope the aviation sector will follow similar footsteps.”