As part of an ongoing series, as we kick off 2018, the Connected Aviation Today team has been reaching out to our editorial contributors and industry experts to get their take on the big trends that impacted 2017 and predictions of what the New Year holds for the commercial airline industry.  This week, we are featuring an interview we conducted with Brian Pemberton, Vice President and General Manager, Aviation at Iridium. Here is what he had to say:

Connected Aviation Today (CAT): Tell us about why the connected aircraft and travel experience is so important to the future of the aviation industry, specifically as it relates to commercial aviation.

Brian Pemberton, Vice President and General Manager, Aviation at Iridium

Brian Pemberton (BP): Looking at passengers that are now in their teens and 20s, these are premium travelers who are going to be expecting high-end connectivity services in the years to come. They don’t view personal devices as discretionary. Their lives are connected 24/7 and being disconnected from their phone or tablet is simply not an option.

And with the growth of travel outside Western Europe and North America, especially in Asian regions – these travel expectations, particularly with regard to connectivity, will increase drastically, given the highly connected nature of Asian travelers. Expectations of in-flight amenities will be based on passengers’ growing technology demands and access to services they use on a daily basis, like easily browsing from their device.

Are there going to be technological solutions that can support these connectivity needs for passengers moving forward? I think undoubtedly the answer is yes. It’s been proven with the amount of capacity that the satellite industry is investing in with regards to the aviation community.

But I think the bigger question is, “What will the airlines and those that support the aviation community do to transform that customer experience of what’s on the aircraft?”

As more and more people are traveling, their expectations of what the minimum acceptable experience is, whether it is dining or connectivity or comfort, seems to be increasing. And the chasm between the front of the aircraft and the back today is massive. I don’t know that that’s sustainable.

CAT: Have there been any significant developments in 2017 that have helped push the industry forward?

BP: The main breakthrough is starting to come in the area of awareness, particularly powered by the ability to gather data. If aircraft parts are monitored in real-time, you might find that functionalities expire at different times and shouldn’t necessarily be serviced or changed simultaneously. Industry leaders can be more proactive with their maintenance as a result.

I also think the airlines are going to become wiser through this data from the aircraft and will look to the OEMs that are providing their engines and brakes and other wear-and-tear items on the aircraft to be more proactive and tailored in their replacement and repair approaches. In the end, this would save money on repairs while generating more revenue with more active aircraft at any given time.

CAT: What challenges still remain? What advice do you offer to those currently facing these challenges?

BP: One of the challenges that aviation faces today is that the connectivity in almost every other industry is moving faster than aviation is accustomed to, and accelerating. Aviation respects safety as its priority, which it should…but the industry is going to have to find a way to be more nimble when it comes to adopting and adapting to evolving connectivity capabilities.

Even though cabin connectivity today is seen as more of a revenue opportunity and ancillary service, it will likely become more of an expected cost that airlines will have to manage. For that reason, I would encourage industry to invest wisely and buy an infrastructure rooted in longevity, something with which you can grow as adoption increases.

But the biggest single challenge facing the aviation community, and it proliferates everything they do, is the slow-moving regulatory framework. The necessity for safety doesn’t elude me, but to fall back on that combined with the absence of efficiency and proactivity causes serious hurdles for those trying to innovate.

The regulatory environment needs to keep in mind the constantly changing landscape of elements like cybersecurity and adapt more quickly. They can no longer just react to incidents – they have to be able to predict and prevent problems.

CAT: How would you sum up your predictions for 2018?

BP: I think 2018 is going to be the year that the focus is back on the front of the aircraft, not the back. The last several years, connectivity focus has been on the passenger experience. I think if airlines are really serious about how they will keep up in that “space race,” they will look more closely at the ROI behind better connectivity options.

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