Zhihang Chi, vice president and general manager, Air China. Credit: Euroconsult

PARIS — A year ago Air China, one of the world’s top-10 airlines when measured by passenger count, gave a list of reasons why it was hesitating to install in-flight-connectivity (IFC) on its fleet.

The cost and weight of the equipment and the irregularity of service were among he reasons. Company officials reasoned that zero service was better than a service of uneven quality:  http://bit.ly/2IOr2Zn

Since then, China’s principal satellite operator, China Satcom, has launched Chinasat 16 with IFC as part of its business plan.

The companion Chinasat 18 also had a payload intended for IFC, but it failed soon after launch: http://bit.ly/345bhpb Chinasat has signed an agreement with Viasat Inc. for IFC deployment.

Hong Kong-based APT Satellite Holdings, owned by Chinese interests, is scheduled for launch in 2020 and was designed in part by Panasonic Avionics for IFC. Gogo has also leased part of the satellite’s payload.

So it’s clear that China is moving toward a broad IFC offering. As for China Air…

The company now says it is looking at adopting IFC for is long-haul flights to North America — in five years. The company is still unclear on what business model works for IFC. Other airlines around the world have the same questions but are plunging ahead anyway.

China’s third largest airline, Air China has been keen to offer IFC to customers on international flights since 2013, when the company conducted a trial of connectivity offerings, only to learn the limitations of the technology and the complexity of choosing an inflight broadband solution.

“Our overriding challenge is that I don’t think anybody has found a successful business model that works for IFC,” said Zhihang Chi, vice president and general manager of Air China. Speaking at Euroconsult’s World Satellite Business Week conference here Sept. 9, Chi said IFC is still prohibitively expensive and that customers do not want to pay for it. “Quite frankly, when they do pay for it, they find that the experience is not that great.”

A year ago, Chi expressed frustration with the company’s lack of progress in finding an IFC solution. Today, he is optimistic that in-flight broadband will find its way onto Air China’s North American routes within five years.

“What triggered that was a total change in our thinking pattern; now it’s not about making a buck, it’s more about providing the customer experience that our customers expect,” he said.

“If you just focus on the commercial, you never get an answer, whereas if you think this is an infrastructure that you need to have, that so many different stakeholders can benefit from, especially on the operational side, the maintenance, flight operations and even customer service in terms of our inflight crew serving our customers — if you go down that path the thinking is a little easier.”

Technical challenges remain a key obstacle, notably the choice between a Ku- or Ka-band solution, or a hybrid, in combination with broadband terrestrial networks.  

“This is a very, very complex field and there are so many factors to consider. For example, our techies would say, ‘Hey, we should get Ka-band,’ and now it doesn’t seem that clear to me; perhaps it’s a combination of Ka-band and Ku-band,” he said. “Also, in China we know 5G is coming, and we know air-to-ground and ground-to-air might be a factor to consider.”

In addition, he said the company is concerned with the significant operational expense that comes with onboard connectivity.

“We don’t want to get into a situation where we promise something and we cannot deliver; to me that would be a total disaster,” he said. 

Amy Svitak is a contributing editor of Space Intel Report