Dutch TUI subsidiary Arkefly has been trialling the TUI Cloud streaming IFE system, which has been fully deployed across the Arkefly fleet of B767-300s, B737-800s and B787s in just 12 weeks. TUI Cloud is enabled by the AirFi battery-powered wi-fi box, and given the success of the trial, the entire TUI family of 140 active aircraft (comprising the fleets of Thomson Airways, TUIfly, Arkefly TUI Nordics and Jetairfly) could also be on a fast track to implementing the system as part of the ‘One Aviation’ carrier consolidation project underway within TUI Group. Arkefly managing director Hans van de Velde explains…
Was it difficult to implement a fleet-wide IFE program in just three months?
Van de Velde (VdV): “In early April we decided we wanted to start with the AirFi boxes. We wanted to have them onboard by early July and that gave us only three months to prepare.
“Together with MI Airline [the developer and manufacturer of AirFi] and our project team at Arkefly we did a lot of work to get it up and running, and it went very well. I think the success was due to the detailed preparation work that we had done with all key players including, for example, the catering supplier Newrest, which stores, charges and uploads the boxes.
“At this moment the boxes are being stored, charged [a four-hour charge gives up to 15 hours of operation] and uploaded in Amsterdam and we are using them onboard [three of the 200 x 120 x 70mm AirFi boxes can fit into one standard size trolley drawer]. The next step might be that we roll out in airports and our hotel transfer buses as well. We did a successful trial on the buses in mid-August.”
Is this pilot with the AirFi boxes a test case for other TUI group airlines?
VdV: “We definitely want, within all TUI Group airlines, to harmonize the inflight experience as much as we can. The rest of the group is watching closely, because at the end of this year we need to have a group-wide strategy in place to harmonize the on-board customer experience.
“We are also looking at specification for the B737MAX, and for us IFE is a very important element because the first delivery will be in January 2018 and the last delivery will be in 2024. An embedded IFE system that is modern in 2018 could easily be outdated by 2024, so we really need to make the right decision.
“The trend towards BYOD (bring your own device) is a driver for all the next steps. We believe that almost all passengers will bring their own iPads or smartphones with them onboard.”
How much time, money and energy is Arkefly saving by going with the portable AirFi boxes over an installed IFE solution?
VdV: “I think we saved a lot, especially a lot of time. There is no need for a Supplemental Type Certificate (STC) and I think that’s a very big plus. Of course there has been some testing, as we must prove to authorities that certain regulations are being complied with, but MI Airline looked after that very efficiently.
“We lost no time on certification and spent no money on it either. When you look at the cost of an embedded IFE system, the AirFi box solution costs just a fraction of that.
“As from November this year, the Airfi box will replace the overhead system on our B737 aircraft. The enthusiastic reaction of customers about TUI Cloud eased the decision to stop showing IFE on overhead screens on the B737s, saving us quite some money.”
Which functions are now enabled as part of Phase One?
VdV: “Onboard each of our aircraft, guests can read the day’s newspapers, current magazines and our own inflight magazine. We have single player and interactive games, destination information, destination videos and feedback surveys. We are in the process of rolling out more non-DRM content [DRM means digital rights managed, also referred to as copy protection].
How are you notifying passengers that the system is live?
VdV: “As it is still a pilot, we have decided to introduce the Airfi system as a soft launch. We first wanted to see how it was working. Now it’s looking great, so we have added an article in our inflight magazine which informs guests about the TUI Cloud. There is also an announcement at the beginning of the flight. We will begin a stronger promotional campaign shortly.”
Most of your wide-body aircraft already have embedded seatback IFE onboard. How do you feel about the box coexisting with embedded system?
VdV: “I definitely think they will complement each other. We can show DRM content on the seatback system, but the system from MI Airline possesses much more flexibility. We can change or add content ourselves, which decreases interaction with the system supplier. We can do a lot of things quickly in-house that we once relied on third parties for.
“From a passenger perspective, most people are now accustomed to second and even third-screen encounters. When I’m at home I often have my MacBook open, my phone on the table and a TV running somewhere in the background. This is also happening onboard. People are watching movies on the seatback, while looking at surveys and exploring destinations on their own device.”
TUI intends to monetize this solution by using it to sell destination activities and more. Is that happening yet?
VdV: “It’s not ready just yet, but that will be part of Phase Two. We want to integrate everything from TUI into the box, so you’re able to look at hotels and excursions, and pre-reserve excursions or make other types of bookings.
“After that is up and running, we will explore all the other possibilities the system offers, for example, third-party advertising and product sales.”
You’ve been using the system to improve food and beverage service. How does that work?
VdV: “We have just trialed a new model on select medium and long-haul flights, where passengers can order from their mobile phone or another device. Normally on these flights, we have two café services. During the trials, we still did the first service, but the second one was removed and passengers were asked instead to order using the TUI Cloud systems supported by the AirFi boxes.
“The order pops up on the iPads of cabin crew and they can prepare and deliver the order. We have a test team working through all the possibilities, and it isn’t just our corporate guys. The team includes a lot of cabin crew who will give us feedback. We really want to consider the insights of people working on the aircraft. We definitely think this will help us sell more food and drinks.”
How does the AirFi box figure into your eventual connected aircraft strategy?
VdV: “We are looking into connectivity as well, but we want to provide the service when we can manage expectations for the passengers and at this moment I don’t believe that we can do that.
“Passengers want to have the same experience on a connected aircraft as what they have on the ground and at this moment we are not currently able to deliver that.”