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In-flight Connectivity Remains Mixed Bag for Low Cost Airlines Regionally

Interviews with new low cost carrier Avelo and Minnesota-based leisure carrier Sun Country Airlines give perspective on why IFC is still not widespread among low cost airlines.

Avelo Airlines emerged in April as one of two new U.S.-based low-cost airlines—the other being Breeze Airways—and has already committed to equipping its fleet of Boeing 737s with in-flight connectivity (IFC) in the future. However, adoption of IFC by low-cost carriers in the U.S. and globally remains mixed with many airlines opting for flights with no internet access to keep operating costs down.

While airline passenger surveys in recent years consistently show the demand for in-flight internet is there for air travelers, the economics of modifying aircraft and paying a broadband service bill to offer the service onboard still don’t add up for most operators using the low-cost model. Avelo’s April debut and forward-looking strategy provide a glimpse into why IFC adoption among this segment of the commercial airline industry remains low.

Operating a fleet of 189-seat Boeing 737s, fares for Avelo start as low as $19, and their primary focus is connecting their initial base at Hollywood Burbank Airport with 11 destinations in the western U.S. Flights average as low as pre-tax $48 to $68, based on a search of flights to various destinations from Burbank on Avelo’s website. Considering Avelo’s preference to keep fares overwhelmingly low, will it be possible to integrate the cost of modifying their aircraft with antennas and modems that also require investment in associated broadband internet service for passengers?

Avelo Airlines Boeing 737s will feature no seatback screens, and their future in-flight connectivity investment will be focused on providing Internet access on passenger mobile devices. Avelo

Victoria Stennes, vice president of customer experience for Avelo told Avionics International that the airline does eventually expect to introduce in-flight internet and explained how they’re keeping fares low while allowing for connected aircraft investment.

“We haven’t announced more details yet around in-flight internet availability, but we do plan to offer this to our customers in the future. We plan to charge a nominal fee for internet access to simply recoup the cost of operating this service but this is not profit-driven,” Stennes said.

Since their launch of a daily round-trip flight from Burbank to Sonoma County, California on Apr. 28, Avelo has added five other routes to small and mid-sized airports in the western U.S. They have also established their first east coast base at New Haven Airport in Connecticut.

Currently, their in-flight service includes free bottled water and a light snack while other beverages and snacks are offered for purchase.

“One of the advantages of being a smaller, new airline, is that our cost structures are inherently lower, and we’re able to pass those savings on to our customers. Our low everyday fares include no change fees or call center fees for customers who choose to make reservations by phone, unbundled travel-enhancing options at industry-low prices that give customers the flexibility to pay for what they value, whether that’s priority boarding ($10), a checked bag ($10) or pre-reserved window or aisle seats (starting at $5) – and eventually, in-flight internet,” Stennes said.

Stennes brings to Avelo an understanding of how to make an in-flight connectivity business model work for a low-cost carrier. She retired from her position as JetBlue’s first-ever vice president of in-flight experience in 2014, a year after the airline introduced IFC on its first aircraft in December 2013.

Avelo’s Boeing 737s feature 189 seats in a single-class layout. At the moment, the only onboard offerings to passengers are a free bottle of water, a snack and other beverages and food available for purchase.Avelo

When they ultimately do introduce a new connectivity service for passengers, the focus will remain on providing more engagement for passenger mobile devices, as none of Avelo’s aircraft feature seatback IFC screens.

“Most customers bring their content on the plane and they bring their own screen, their phone, or other devices. Their screen is often a lot more technologically advanced and reliable than others. So, to save money that we can pass on to our customers, it is not our intention to invest in old seat back technology, but to focus on providing a superior Wi-Fi offering for customers who value it in-flight,” Stennes said.

The service that Avelo eventually invests in will also have to compete with in-flight internet offered by other low-cost and non-low cost carriers alike.

“The new, next-generation Wi-Fi technology we’re aiming to roll out will eliminate a lot of the frustrations that customers experience today on airlines equipped with old technology, allowing for a more enjoyable in-flight experience for our customers,” Stennes said.

The next immediate technology-related investment though will come in the form of a new mobile app for Avelo passengers.

“We plan to launch our app soon – giving Customers even more flexibility with how and where they book. We know that mobile booking is a priority for many of our Customers and an app will be key to helping them manage their journey. Launching our app will continue to give our customers an easier and smoother travel experience – from booking a trip from the convenience of their phone to planning their arrival at some of the best airports in the country,” Stennes said.

Other low-cost carriers express different opinions about the value of providing passengers with airborne access to the internet. Minnesota-based Sun Country Airlines, for example, was a low-cost leisure carrier before the impact of COVID-19 caused passenger demand for leisure travel to increase.

With popular routes going from Minnesota to several vacation destinations, including Aruba, Honolulu, Turks & Caicos, and St. Thomas among others, Sun Country’s leadership has not seen an overwhelming demand for in-flight connectivity from leisure travelers.

“Many of our customers are leisure travelers – they want to stay entertained in-flight, but don’t necessarily need to check email or work on a shared spreadsheet. Rather than charge our guests for Wi-Fi, we offer complimentary onboard entertainment options passengers can enjoy on their own personal devices as well as in-seat power to keep them charged throughout the flight,” Brian Davis, chief marketing officer for Sun Country Airlines wrote in an emailed statement.

Sun Country Airlines’ fleet of 737s feature no in-flight Internet, although the Minnesota-based carrier hasn’t completely ruled out a connectivity investment in the future. Sun Country Airlines

Although Sun Country passengers cannot stream or use mobile applications that require an internet connection, the airline has made another type of streaming available to them thanks to their 2018 selection of AirFi to supply wireless in-flight entertainment to every seat across all of their Boeing 737s.

AirFi, the Netherlands-based wireless IFC supplier, provided Sun Country with its 2-kilogram AirFi Box, with an embedded server, ARM processor, and mass storage device that run off aircraft power and alternatively an internal battery to autonomously deliver wireless IFC content to passenger mobile devices.

Davis said the AirFi solution is more than enough IFC for their leisure passengers.

“In 2017 we began a significant transformation, spending a great deal of time assessing the onboard passenger experience. Part of this exciting change included introducing complimentary IFC, inviting passengers to connect to AirFi to stream a unique library of popular movies, television shows, games, music, and more. For a while, we experimented with in-flight tablets but found they required more maintenance, and most folks prefer to bring their own tech onboard like smartphones, tablets, or laptops,” Davis said.

Along with the wireless IFC investment, Sun Country also equipped each of its seas with USB ports and power outlets. The 2017 transformation also included an increase to the seat pitch on their aircraft, which currently sits at 29-34 inches for the 737-800 and 36-38 inches for the 737-700, compared to the industry average range of 29 to 32 inches.

Davis said Sun Country has not completely ruled out a possible IFC investment in the future.

“We are constantly evaluating our customer experience, but we believe we offer our guests a really comfortable product at a price point that stimulates leisure travel. We are focused on keeping transferrable costs down while meeting the needs of our customers. Our current onboard digital experience fulfills this. We are able to offer an enhanced onboard experience while keeping fare prices down for folks who fly with us. We will continue to evaluate the option of adding Wi-Fi in the future but at this time, we’re happy with our current onboard entertainment options,” Davis said.

Sun Country’s 737s also feature no seatback IFE screens. Sun Country Airlines

As the most glaring example, Europe’s two largest low-cost carriers, Easyjet and Ryanair, have never featured in-flight Internet access and still in 2021 have announced no plans for consideration of adopting connectivity. In the U.S., by contrast, the two most recognizable low-cost carriers, JetBlue and Southwest have both offered tiered access to in-flight Internet for more than five years.

The perspectives on investing in IFC expressed by Stennes and Davis are reflective of a global trend among low-cost carriers.

According to a September 2020 report published by Euroconsult, there were approximately 9,200 aircraft equipped with IFC globally at the end of 2019, and despite the impact of COVID-19, the firm expects that number to grow to between 15,000 and 18,000 by 2029. Xavier Lansel, a senior consultant for Euroconsult, told Avionics that it is difficult to estimate how many of those newly connected aircraft will be operated by low-cost carriers.

Sun Country uses AirFi’s portable IFE box, shown here, to stream pre-loaded content to passenger mobile devices. AirFi

“We can definitely observe an increased adoption of IFC by LCC but with regional disparities,” Lansel said in an emailed statement. “The Asia-Pacific region is dominated by LCCs and some of the major ones like Air Asia are driving the adoption. North America, where IFC is more common than anywhere in the world, is seeing an increasing adoption by LCCs, for instance, Southwest Airlines, JetBlue, and Spirit Airlines. In this region, some connected LCCs, like JetBlue, are paving the way towards free IFC. Europe is lagging behind as few LCC currently offer IFC.”