The aviation industry has seen significant turbulence since the shutdown of air travel in 2020. That said, the industry came together, defined a path forward, and quickly pivoted to modernize and implement the latest technologies that would allow for the return of safe air travel. Now, 16 months later, FlightPlan is returning with C-Suite Week, the third in the series developed by Inmarsat Aviation, and will examine lessons learned, best practices, and future plans of five major airlines across the globe.

We had the opportunity to catch up with Niels Steenstrup, Inmarsat Aviation Senior Vice President, Inflight Connectivity Business, before FlightPlan to get his take on how the industry has navigated so many changes and what technologies will help boost passenger confidence in the future.

Connected Aviation Today (CAT) Editors: As we prepare for the third Flight Plan event, the industry is emerging from a global pandemic. At this stage, what are the most pressing issues facing the future of air travel?

Niels Steenstrup: As travel corridors begin to reopen around the world, the aviation industry faces a new set of challenges. We quickly adjusted to new regulations and procedures around safety in the last year, but a major ongoing issue for airlines is one of confidence. How can airlines regain passenger confidence in travel and win back customers?

Despite the eagerness of many to fly again, concerns such as being in close contact with others for extended time periods are continuing to cause hesitation among travelers. The industry needs to put passenger experience front of mind to rebuild confidence. Throughout lockdowns, people managed to stay connected at home, so how can this be reflected throughout the journey experience as they return to the skies? In an increasingly competitive landscape, it’s clear that airlines need to invest in digital technology to appeal to today’s passengers.

While passenger confidence is an immediate issue facing the future of air travel, the industry also needs to look ahead at how to ensure a stable and sustainable future. This includes a clear plan to reach environmental targets. Climate change is a huge priority for governments, businesses, and consumers today, and as the industry looks to recover from the pandemic, it must do so with sustainability top-of-mind.

CAT Editors: How has the aviation industry used the past 16 months to prepare for this stage? 

Steenstrup: The last 16 months have, undeniably, constituted the most challenging period in the history of aviation. Never before have we faced such huge constraints on the movement of people and goods around the world for such an extended period of time. The initial months of the pandemic were all about finding ways to operate within these new restrictions, and first and foremost, ensuring the safety of passengers needing to travel.

The industry has, through taking a collaborative approach, succeeded in making flying both viable and safe in an unfamiliar new world context. It’s now time to look back on what we’ve learned through this challenging time, and think about what the future of air travel could look like. FlightPlan: C-Suite Week, I hope, will provide a unique moment to reflect on how different the aviation industry is today compared with 16 months ago – the good and the bad – and together prepare for the industry’s recovery to take off.

CAT Editors: What lessons have been learned?

Steenstrup: Firstly, this pandemic reinforced what we already knew: nothing is more important than keeping passengers safe. Secondly, we can drive change at record speeds when airlines, technology partners, governments, and trade associations work together on a common goal. And finally, for me, this year has shown why digitization in the air matters. Connected services can not only create more exciting passenger experiences on the plane, but they can also help airlines to adapt to a very different operating context.

CAT Editors: What else needs to be done to boost passenger confidence in the future of air travel?

Steenstrup: There remains a lot of complexities in the logistics of travel, with constantly changing rules leaving many passengers confused and anxious about taking trips. With every country having its own rules of entry, isolation, and testing, travel takes a lot more planning today than it once did. To address this, airlines need to provide clear and simple information to passengers throughout the journey, from the moment of booking to arrival. Importantly, this also includes providing access to information online during the flight itself.

In addition, health and safety will remain at the forefront of passengers’ minds, even as we look beyond the pandemic. We believe connectivity is an essential tool for airlines looking to rebuild passenger confidence. Offering digital services, underpinned by connectivity, is a great way of reducing touchpoints and reassuring passengers that their safety is paramount.

Our Passenger Confidence Tracker, unveiled in November 2020, revealed that destination status alerts, real-time luggage tracking, and pre-clearing immigration on the plane are among the most cited passenger demands of the post-COVID onboard experience. These are all enabled by cabin Wi-Fi. Airlines can therefore demonstrate their appreciation of a “new normal” by bolstering digitization in these areas as they look to rebuild loyalty and trust. 

British Airways, for example, took its High Life magazine online using our online inflight connectivity, so that passengers can avoid touching physical magazine pages. We believe that low-cost carriers will shortly trial new online portals, which will allow passengers to order and pay for food and drinks inflight using their own devices. These services have been developed for a quick launch to provide reassurance to passengers and crew alike and are available this year. 

CAT Editors: Anything else to add?

Steenstrup: We remain confident about what the future holds for the inflight connectivity market and continue to invest more than ever in our advanced global satellite constellations. If anything, the pandemic has prompted airlines to take an even harder look at their current digital capabilities and how innovative connectivity solutions can give them an edge against competitors, so we’re planning for the future with this shift in mind.

Inmarsat is investing more than ever before in a transformational development program that will build on the success of our existing global satellite networks with the launch of seven further satellites by 2024 as part of our technology roadmap. With our upcoming satellite launches to add further redundancy, we can confidently assure airlines of their ability to bring a high quality of service to today and tomorrow’s passengers.

To register for FlightPlan: C-Suite Week, or to learn more about the FlightPlan event, visit: flightplan.wavecast.io.

About Shany Seawright

A senior executive at Strategic Communications Group and Managing Editor of Connected Aviation Today, as well as other publications, Seawright oversees the editorial direction of the publication and managed the editorial staff.