In an announcement that’ll please both business and leisure travellers around the world, Qatar Airways has announced a deal with Elon Musk’s Starlink for innovative high-speed, low-latency Wi-Fi that will eventually be fleet-wide, beginning with three of QR’s Boeing 777-300ER aircraft by the last quarter of this year, as part of the initial phase of its rollout strategy.

The airline describes the move as solidifying the airline's commitment to elevating the passenger experience onboard, with plans to progressively extend SpaceX-powered technology across its entire modern fleet within the next two years.

I’m in Hamburg, where the announcement took place during the second day of the Aircraft Interior Expo in the presence of Qatar Airways Group Chief Executive Officer, engineer Badr Mohamed al-Meer, and Mike Nicolls, vice-president of Starlink Engineering at SpaceX.

Starlink is the world's first and largest satellite constellation using a low Earth orbit to deliver broadband internet capable of supporting streaming, online gaming, video calls and more.

Most satellite internet services come from single geostationary satellites that orbit the planet at 35,786km. As a result, the round trip data time between the user and satellite—also known as latency—is high, making it nearly impossible to support streaming, online gaming, video calls or other high data rate activities.

Starlink is a constellation of thousands of satellites that orbit the planet much closer to Earth, at about 550km, and cover the entire globe. Because Starlink satellites are in a low orbit, latency is significantly lower — around 25 ms vs 600+ ms.

As of April 2024, there are 5,874 Starlink satellites in orbit, of which 5,800 are operational, according to astronomer Jonathan McDowell who tracks the constellation.

By offering an ultra-high-speed Wi-Fi connectivity of up to 500 megabit per second per plane, Qatar Airways’ passengers can use the high-speed and low-latency network with a simple ‘one-click-access’ to enjoy a variety of internet-based services such as video streaming of entertainment and sports videos, online gaming, live TV, news enriched web-browsing and much more.

Qatar Airways Group Chief Executive Officer, engineer Badr Mohamed al-Meer, said: “This exciting collaboration with Starlink is a testament to our customer-first mindset and commitment to elevating our passengers’ experience to unprecedented heights, as we continue furthering our innovative offerings to meet and exceed passengers’ expectations throughout their journey with Qatar Airways.”

As the first-ever service of its kind in the Mena region, the collaboration with Starlink, the world’s largest satellite internet constellation engineered and operated by SpaceX, marks a new milestone for the national carrier of the State of Qatar. This strategic initiative will further elevate the airline’s unparalleled onboard experience.

Starlink Engineering vice-president at SpaceX, Mike Nicolls, said: “High-speed, low-latency internet is the future of aviation connectivity, and we’re excited to work with Qatar Airways to start flying Starlink on their fleet by the end of this year. Soon, all Qatar Airways passengers will be able to enjoy all the benefits of the world’s best in-flight connectivity from the comfort of their seats.”

With connectivity being a key factor in consumer decision-making, airline passengers now seek what they have on the ground, in the air. And airlines that prioritise dedicated Wi-Fi services, have the potential to differentiate themselves from their competitors and enhance the overall passenger experience.

Around 97% of passengers use personal devices in the air. Familiarity with their own personal devices means passengers feel more confident using them in the air. 77% of respondents to a global Inmarsat survey of over 11,000 people said Wi-Fi is important to them during their flight. 82% said they’re more likely to travel with an airline again if quality Wi-Fi is available. 79% of passengers connected to inflight Wi-Fi when available. Over half of the survey’s participants said they would be prepared to make a concession by watching adverts in exchange for access to reliable Wi-Fi. This, crucially, opens up a world of commercial opportunities for airlines – and could help fund the investment in quality connectivity in the first place. Speed and reliability of Wi-Fi can make all the difference to whether customers return, or not. This figure jumps to a whopping 92% when it comes to business travellers. This goes to show the growing impact that reliable connectivity can have on an airline’s reputation and repeat business, in an infamously fickle market.
The author is an aviation analyst. Twitter handle: @AlexInAir
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