It seems that people are now coming round to the view, which we’ve expressed since 2006, that there won’t be enough paying users of in-flight broadband for both network providers and airlines to make a profit on the costs of deploying equipment and running a network (as Boeing found out after spending somewhere between $1B and $2B on Connexion). Our view was that only airlines who are interested in offering a differentiated service would be able to justify the costs involved. However, to date the leading service providers (Aircell and Row44) have apparently not only been installing the equipment for free, but have also been offering a cut of revenues to the airline. Its no wonder that this “no lose” proposition has led to fleetwide installation commitments from most of the major US airlines. In comparison, installations of Inmarsat equipment for in-flight cellular services on aircraft in other parts of the world have slowed dramatically over the last 18 months, as most airlines no longer have the money to pay for fleetwide upgrades (with the possible exception of Ryanair, which we suspect may have a similarly attractive deal from OnAir).
Lost in the noise of Southwest’s commitment to install Row44 service across its entire fleet of 540 aircraft was the footnote that there isn’t “a solid timeframe for [installation]” because “certain specific details concerning the cost and financing of equipage are still being worked out”. From what we’ve heard, Row44 needs to raise a lot more money very soon in order to move forward with full-scale deployment (pretty obviously, since fitting equipment on 500 planes at $250K+ each would cost $125M), and presumably Southwest’s announcement was timed to help them secure that funding. However, with Southwest also demanding “control [over] the price point that our customer sees”, it seems a pretty unpalatable deal for potential investors if Row44 must front the installation costs and pay for the network and then let Southwest set the pricing to maximize its own return (probably more dictated by customer loyalty) rather than Row44′s revenues. Similarly unreasonable expectations appear to have been the reason why the oft-mentioned return of Connexion service on Lufthansa (who refused to provide any revenue guarantee to the network provider but wanted to make the provider liable for any future equipment deinstallations) has not happened to date.
What is the solution to achieving a sustainable business model for in-flight broadband? Whether it lies in airlines providing connectivity for free as a differentiator for their customers, or airlines using the link to the aircraft as a means to reduce their own operating costs, what we’re ultimately going to have to see is a change in the direction that the money flows. Instead of airlines getting the equipment for free and receiving a share of the service revenues, the airline is going to have to pay for the equipment and maybe in some cases even offer a revenue guarantee to the network provider (particularly on long-haul international routes where the cost of providing Ku-band coverage is much greater).
How palatable will in-flight connectivity be then to airlines that are currently losing hundreds of millions of dollars a year? At the very least we’d expect them to be a lot more discriminating in deciding whether to provide connectivity or not (who needs it on a one hour shuttle flight?). Perhaps its only if one of the providers goes bust that we’ll see a return to rationality in pricing (of course, it would be very unlikely for the service itself to disappear completely as Connexion did, because the costs of operating either Aircell or Row44′s networks domestically aren’t that high). Until that point is reached, expect airlines to continue to scramble to get something for nothing with their in-flight connectivity installations. In the meantime we’ll be watching carefully to see if the discussions over “cost and financing of equipage” between Southwest and Row44 get resolved and if investors are willing to put more money into in-flight connectivity providers.