Published in Aviation Week as sponsored content, April 6, 2016

On August 4, 2010, at a Techonomy conference in Lake Tahoe, California, Google CEO Eric Schmidt put civilization’s march into the “information age” in dramatic perspective.

Schmidt noted that we create as much information in two days, as we did from the dawn of humankind up until 2003. He estimated that we create five exabytes of information — the equivalent of 500 times the entire contents of the Library of Congress — every 48 hours.

And that was six years ago.

Today, information is even more pervasive. It moves at the speed of light and surrounds us 24 hours a day. And as the Internet of Things becomes as autonomic as breathing, the amount of data will grow exponentially. As valuable as this breadth of information can be, however, it also presents three significant challenges:

  • How do we manage this massive amount of data efficiently?
  • How can we leverage the data to provide our customers with new and valued insights?
  • How can we manage and leverage the data affordably?

As the Internet of Things becomes as autonomic as breathing, the amount of data will grow exponentially

Information management teams within the aviation industry live and breathe at the leading edge of these challenges. We’re harnessing information to provide mission-critical communications and flight support for thousands of government and military missions around the globe every day; delivering enhanced vision systems and synthetic vision systems that greatly increase a pilot’s situational awareness; and protecting aviation assets with tip-of-the-spear cybersecurity. The common thread woven within these technologies is connectivity.

And the face of connectivity is changing to meet the growing demands of the information age.

Life doesn’t pause when travelers leave the ground

When we’re on the ground, much of our daily focus is centered on personal electronic devices. Through these extraordinary devices we’re listening to the news, making calls, sending emails, responding to text messages, editing remarks, and making last-minute changes to slide decks. We’re also communicating, sharing information, and entertaining ourselves through tweets, LinkedIn updates, Facebook connections, Tumblr blogs, YouTube videos, Periscope live videos, and Netflix streaming movies — all at blazing speed.

Now, consider your experience on a commercial aircraft. Your expectation has evolved from a passive “Please entertain me” to a proactive “I want to entertain myself.” Yet, once you enter the aircraft cabin, you leave a world with nearly endless options for high-speed global connectivity and enter a world where connectivity is hit or miss, if it’s offered at all. This turns a lot of Cinderellas and Prince Charmings into one of the Seven Dwarfs: Grumpy. And the reason is obvious.

Whether during takeoff, landing, or at 40,000 feet, airline passengers want their devices to have access to the same information and speed they enjoy on the ground. This is a big leap and we’re not there yet. But to earn passenger satisfaction and loyalty, we must meet this higher expectation while also ensuring that airlines achieve their goals. We’re getting close. As new aircraft come online, inflight broadband connectivity enabled by a global satellite communications network will become the norm, either free as a service or monetized.

Companies like Rockwell Collins are leading the way in making the connected aircraft a reality. In short, we’re working to enable passengers to continue to experience the depth and breadth of their terrestrial lives even when they’re no longer terrestrial.

Whether during takeoff, landing, or at 40,000 feet, airline passengers want their devices to have access to the same information and speed they enjoy on the ground

Let me share some of the things we’re working on that are changing the face of connectivity in the aircraft cabin.

A new name for a new experience

In-Flight Entertainment (IFE) systems have been around since the 1960s. Today, we’ve moved to IFEC, where the C stands for Connectivity. This is an improvement because many aircraft enable passengers to plug in a personal electronic device, and others enable passengers to purchase broadband connectivity for an even better experience.

But even IFEC is woefully inadequate to describe what passengers now expect during their flight. Our industry needs a new term to describe a holistic experience that is equal in every way to how people leverage their devices on terra firma. The future of the passenger/cabin interaction is beyond one of mere entertainment and can be more accurately described as one of deep and ongoing engagement. So I’m going to use the term In-Flight Passenger Engagement (IFPE) as a better description of where I see the industry going and how I see it evolving.

A whole new level of personal

Inmarsat now brings the newest generation of broadband to airline customers worldwide. With a constellation of three I-5 satellites (and a fourth already under construction), Global Xpress Aviation Ka-band provides high-speed mobile broadband communications virtually anywhere on the planet. It’s going to change the face of connectivity.

But getting a broader pipe to the aircraft is just part of the challenge. We also need an on-board wireless routing system that reliably and consistently delivers high-speed connectivity to each of the hundreds of smart phones and tablets brought onboard by a full cabin of passengers. Rockwell Collins recently broke that barrier.

With Inmarsat GX Ka-band and a state-of-the-art wireless routing system, passengers will remain in constant touch with their world below, and at previously unattainable speeds. In particular, we’ll enable airlines to deliver personal preferences in the same way that hotel loyalty programs do.

So, although I’m no Van Gogh, let me paint you a picture:

  • Imagine entering an aircraft cabin, walking to your seat, waking up your device of choice, and seeing that the following personal preferences are already waiting for you in a preloaded app: your favorite games, movies, music, magazines and digital books.
  • Instead of waiting for the flight attendant to ask for your drink, snack, breakfast, lunch or dinner preference, the attendant already knows it and brings it to you. Even your window shade position and reading light preference is stored and awaiting your arrival — all to ensure a highly-tailored passenger experience.

With Inmarsat GX Ka-band, passengers will remain in constant touch with their world below and at previously unattainable speeds

  • Upon exiting the aircraft at your destination, a digital map of the concourse pops up on your smartphone and gives you step-by-step directions to your connecting flight. This includes up-to-the-second information on gate changes.
  • And at the end of your trip, wouldn’t it be terrific to know if your bags are waiting for you at Baggage Claim or spending the night in Chicago? If they’re waiting for you, you’ll receive directions to the right carousel. No more wandering through Baggage Claim looking for faces you recognize from your flight. (I know airports have flight/carousel signage. But who remembers their flight number without rummaging through a dozen pockets for the right boarding pass?)

This isn’t a pipe-dream. Second-generation connectivity is coming. And it’s coming to an aircraft near you.

Improving the airline’s bottom line

To paraphrase the U.S. orange juice commercial — Connectivity: it isn’t just for passengers anymore. The benefits of the connected aircraft drive right down to an airline’s bottom line.

Here are a couple of examples. Most of us have purchased in-flight meals with a credit card. On long flights, some of us have also used a credit card to purchase that last minute, high-end, duty-free gift. But depending on the circumstances of the flight, that credit card transaction doesn’t always go through to your credit card company in real time. The cost of your purchase is “stored” in the point-of-sale device until the aircraft lands and arrives at your gate.

Some passengers take advantage of this by using fake or expired credit cards. By the time the airline realizes the card is no good, the passenger is out of the airport. Across the industry, that can incur loses totaling hundreds of millions of dollars a year.

But with a connected aircraft, airlines don’t have to worry about losing a dollar to this fraud. Credit card transactions can be processed in real time.

The case for connectivity

The evolution of high-speed connectivity and advanced wireless cabin networks will be a winner for passengers and airlines alike. I’m convinced that passengers will give their loyalty — and an improving bottom line — to the airline that delivers a seamless transition between the connectivity experience at home or work and the experience available during a flight. We must continue to develop the richer, more engaging experiences that will meet and exceed these expectations and position airlines and the entire industry for success.

Information management teams within the aviation industry are harnessing aviation’s information age and helping to deliver the connected aircraft. The possibilities are both endless and endlessly exciting.

And, yes, very soon we’ll actually look forward to spending five hours at 40,000 feet.

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Posted by Rockwell Collins