The adoption of in-flight WiFi by budget airlines will provide a boost to the connected in-flight entertainment (IFE) market, driving the number of connected commercial aircraft to over 10,400 by 2020, according to a report from Juniper Research.
This will represent over a threefold increase from an estimated 3,200 this year, and the decreasing costs of standalone in-flight WiFi hardware, which will soon be offered as line-fit equipment by major aircraft manufacturers, will for the first time make connected IFE attractive to low-cost airlines flying short-haul routes.
"I think the biggest hurdle is still low-cost connectivity coupled with certain business model challenges," Gareth Owen, associate analyst at Juniper Research, told eWEEK. "The rate of adoption will depend on how quickly these issues are resolved. Connectivity has traditionally been the main challenge facing connected IFE; this situation is now getting better, particularly with the launch of new satellites, including Inmarsat’s Global Xpress, which will help to overcome these problems."
Owen said for the airlines, the biggest challenge to broader adoption is making passengers pay—only around 8 per cent of passengers globally use in-flight connectivity when they have to pay for it, and they are experimenting to create viable business models, but they may (at least in the short term) have to regard connectivity as an essential value-add service rather than a revenue generation opportunity.
He noted other issues include safety and security and regulatory issues, which might have a bigger impact on adoption in some parts of the world.
"Consumers are first and foremost looking for basic Internet access so that they can do the things they do on the ground such as access e-mail, social media, and so on," he said. "But there is also a strong trend to stream content such as movies, which could be on-board content or content streamed directly from the Internet."
The research also noted that rather than using traditional embedded seatback screens, many budget airlines are adopting the bring your own device (BYOD) approach. Here, passengers are allowed to use their own devices on-board the aircraft to stream airline owned content, thereby reducing IFE hardware costs and weight.
"Providing there are no security and safety issues, I think in-flight WiFi will become a must-have for all airlines and although the airlines might have to subsidize the costs for some time, there is a lot of potential to develop revenue generation, although this will take time and there might be some consolidation in the value chain before this happens," Owen said. "We see in-flight WiFi access becoming a basic standard service offered by all airlines on all aircraft in the U.S. in less than 5 years, with some of it complimentary—limited by time or MB—and a paid option being offered thereafter."
Owen said penetration in transcontinental routes will also be very high and will become standard, particularly in business class, noting some airlines will offer this quicker than others, for example, some of the Middle Eastern Airlines such as Emirates.