Nine months into Viasat’s partnership with SAS, VP of commercial aviation Don Buchman sat down with two representatives from the Scandinavian airline to discuss their reasons for selecting Viasat as an in-flight connectivity provider and check in on the response from passengers and crew.
“We wanted to provide such strong internet so that our passengers could do (in flight) whatever they do at home or at work,” said Annika Ingelhammar, head of product strategy concepts and connectivity for SAS. “And that’s exactly what we see that our passengers are doing. They check their emails. They stream from streaming services, or they just send text messages.”
Ingelhammar and Gunilla Ait El-Mekki — SAS product manager for in-flight entertainment and connectivity — also touched on the success of Turi, the SAS chatbot; and how Viasat’s high-capacity connection helps crew to improve flight routing and better serve customers.
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Transcript: Viasat CommAir podcast No. 4: SAS
Don Buchman: Hello everyone this is Don Buchman again here with our podcast, number four in the series. We’re pretty excited. Today’s a special day: We’ve got SAS Scandinavian Airlines with us today. Annika and Gunilla are here. And as everyone knows SAS is one of Viasat’s broadband customers for in-flight connectivity. We launched successfully and they’ve been rolling the product out to their passengers so today we’re here to hear from SAS how the product’s going and how they’re using it and just sort of see what it is the value of this product. So Annika and Gunilla could you introduce yourselves and let us know your roles.
Annika Ingelhammar: Sure. My name is Annika Ingelhammar. I’m heading the connectivity team at SAS as Head of Product Strategy concepts and connectivity.
Gunilla Ait El-Mekki: And I’m Gunilla Ait El-Mekki. I work on Annika’s team as product manager for IFE and connectivity.
Don Buchman: Okay great. So the first thing — let’s sort of talk about how’s the product doing. It’s out the field. We did our launch in the May-June timeframe and we’ve gotten a number of aircraft. So just what’s been the feedback from the passengers — how are they using it? What’s worked, what hasn’t worked?
Annika Ingelhammar: Overall our passengers are really happy about the high speed Wi-Fi that we provide onboard. We have this business model where our frequent flyers with higher tier levels get it for free as well as passengers flying in our Plus cabin correspondent to economy extra, and passengers in economy they pay a fee of seven dollars for it. But overall we get really great response from all our passengers.
Don Buchman: Excellent. So it sounds like we’re kind of hitting the mark. So we kind of take a step back and sort of think about when you were envisioning the product. How do you want to bring it to market? You sort of selected Viasat and so I kind of want to see how was how was that decision process and how do you think it sort of worked now that we got the product in the field. Are we kind of hitting the marks? Is the product sort of there and the passengers work in it.
Gunilla Ait El-Mekki: Yeah I would really say so. I mean when we started off it was also because we had quite a lot of requests from passengers asking us when are you going to implement Wi-Fi on your short haul fleet — really would like to see the product. We also saw ourselves that we needed to close the pain points in the customer journey. So our challenge I would say was that Scandinavians are all very very used to good connectivity. We really had to find a service that could meet their expectations not only when it came to speed but also the reliability of the system. So that was one of the the big things we needed to get to SAS.
And another important aspect was to prolong the time that Wi-Fi was available onboard because we do have quite a lot of short flights. We fly an enormous network over the Scandinavian countries. A lot of domestic flights, and for short flights we wanted people to be able to use it from when the doors were closing and until they left the plane at the destination. I think by introducing a gate to gate — as we say internally at least — I think we have fulfilled that as well. And also making even more good out of the investment of Wi-Fi. When we started to seriously look at this, I think the timing was right because with the development of the new high speed Wi-Fi systems, we saw that you had the product. It was a good match for us. So that was kind of the history until now.
And now we are going on very very well. I would also say that one of the success criteria is that we had before we started was to do intensive user testing and really try to work as a team from all sides. And we did a lot of flights live with passengers and we really prompted them to use the system to connect everything they had and to do a lot of things. And by that we learned all the time and we were able to both from Viasat’s side and also from SAS to fix the small things that we saw were not perfect. So I think that has been a very very successful thing to launch the system as it is now and it has also contributed to passenger satisfaction.
Don Buchman: Ok so walk me through the passenger experience like when a passenger gets onboard. How do I know Wi-Fi is available and how do I get onto Wi-Fi. So you mentioned gate to gate, it would be really interesting to sort of understand the passenger experience piece of that.
Gunilla Ait El-Mekki: Of course, you think that everyone understands that we have Wi-Fi and we notice that’s not the case. It’s not enough that crew was announcing, it was not enough that we had the cards in the seat pockets. We needed to do something more. So a couple of months ago we started to have big decals on the planes saying travelers stream just like at home just to set the pace so they know that this is good Wi-Fi. We also have had headrest covers throughout the plane with a nice text of ‘Buckle Up – High speed Wi-Fi onboard.’ And we also involved our gate staff to do announcements beforehand and then of course the regular marketing social media and all that. But the closer you come to the departure the more important it is to highlight it even more.
Don Buchman: Ok very good. And so it was effective. You sort of see the take-rates kind of going up.
Annika Ingelhammar: Yeah definitely. It’s made a lot of difference. OK. Since our passengers came from not being used to us having Wi-Fi on what we needed to really show them.
Don Buchman: OK. And how’s excitement been? So the passengers now using it we’re hearing you know pretty good things — how are they using a system? Like what are the values they’re using, what kind of applications. Is that hitting your expectations?
Annika Ingelhammar: The vision we had when we invested in high speed Wi-Fi was to be able to deliver on our brand promise: “Make time matter.” So we wanted to provide such strong internet so that our passengers could do what ever they do at home or at work that they could do the same things when they are in there. And that’s exactly what we see that our passengers are doing. They check their e-mails. They stream from streaming services or they just send text messages. So we see a little bit of difference in terms of how long the flights are that passengers seem to tend to stream more. The longer the flight is and that then usage of sending e-mails et cetera is is higher when the flight is shorter.
Don Buchman: That’s really good. So what’s really interesting on that is sort of the passenger experience and I noticed that you had SAS the airline had very good results so congratulations on the record setting results. I know it’s been a horror a lot of hard work on your team and your entire team on this and it’s great to see the payoff happening. How do you see this as an amenity sort of helping with the overall airline you know. Bringing in the loyalty or bringing in the passenger happiness factor.
Annika Ingelhammar: Yeah. Well Wi-Fi onboard enables us to support our customers throughout the entire journey we can be with them digitally throughout the whole journey which we couldn’t before. We can be more personalized in terms of digital offers or we can also help them in terms of checking irregularity. Or we also see that a lot of our passengers they actually booked their next ticket while they are onboard our flights so they can spend the time doing the things that they otherwise would have to wait to do.
Don Buchman: And so it’s good you’re actually buying them time. Yeah. You’re giving them time back. That’s interesting concept. I like that.
Annika Ingelhammar: Exactly. Making time matter.
That’s very good. And the feedback continues to be good. So on the innovation side, some of the really cool things I hear about is like Turi. You guys are going through we have this bot. It’s a great story. So why don’t you tell me a little about the story behind that and what that innovation is doing.
Annika Ingelhammar: Exactly. So our digital lab developed this chatbot we call Turi. And Turi was one of the world’s first commercial female pilots. And she was then of course flying SAS. So we wanted to bring the spirit we had back there into the future. That’s what Turi has been doing using the A.I. technology.
We started using Turi actually in a different field. That was for lost baggage or delayed baggage but we wanted to use Turi onboard in a positive way. So we do have the passenger support from Viasat live if they have any trouble. But we saw that Viasat got a lot of other questions in that you couldn’t handle or shouldn’t have to handle. So what we did was that we asked Turi to be our Wi-Fi assistant onboard. So she’s proudly flying on our portal and helping our passengers with a lot of questions. And mostly of course questions related to the Euro Bonus numbers or whatever it is that they couldn’t find right away when they wanted to log in.
So I think Turi has been very very successful. She’s very efficient. She learns very quickly. She gets a lot of proposals like ‘do you want to marry me?’ and stuff like that. But she so far she hasn’t said yes. So she’s still with us. Still we will continue to develop her.
Don Buchman: Oh excellent. So kind of on that, on this digital transformation theme: How do you see sort of now taking the product and so maybe some next steps that you can do across the airline. You know now you have connectivity and passengers using it. That’s probably not the end right. That’s probably the beginning.
Annika Ingelhammar: Yeah. Well we will continue to explore whatever new revenue streams that Wi-Fi enables. Of course in terms of maybe partnerships or other relevant things for the customer but this is also a big part of the big strategy for SAS where we want to drive digitalization. We are focusing on enhancing the customer experience even more. And also in Scandinavia sustainability is a hot topic as well as for SAS. And we see that Wi-Fi plays an important role for all of these topics. And as far as sustainability we see that Wi-Fi and digitalization is an enabler for new business models and a bit and possibility to explore new things that we weren’t able to do earlier.
Don Buchman: That’s really interesting on the sustainability angle you know that basically you wouldn’t think of a digital transformation as sustainable but I like that angle that you could sort of you know you can have a cost reduction you know better business models but that also helped some of the ecological concerns that we have with aviation and being a better business partner. Yes that’s very exciting. So those are all things that we’re kind of looking at sort of try and take advantage of in the future that this just enables.
Gunilla Ait El-Mekki: And as another example of that, since we do have certain apps for our flight deck and our cabin crew enabled on their iPads our pilots can check new weather stats for instance so they could do better landings or take better routes that they didn’t know before. And like that we can also save fuel. So there are a lot of new operational areas also that I don’t think that we have explored enough yet. We have had the system for a couple of months. So I think there are a lot more things. And the one very important thing is to understand the passenger needs and how to develop due to that and we hope that they will be able to tell us even more what they would like to see. And I think Annika you had a good experience with our hackathon.
Annika Ingelhammar: Oh yeah. We had a hackathon actually. And so the labs department at SAS, they organized a hackathon, and one of the themes for the hackathon was connected flight. So we invited people to apply to join the hackathon and a few were selected and they were at SAS, our head office, for 24 hours with the mission to solve something within this theme ‘connected flight.’
Don Buchman: OK. So some interesting solutions come out?
Annika Ingelhammar: Yeah definitely. They were very innovative and some of them we will take with us and explore forward to see if we can actually launch them on our Wi-Fi system onboard.
Don Buchman: Ok great. I’m sure the Scandinavian traveler is going to be really excited to sort of see those innovations come from that hackathon to you know bring into your seat, sitting there, so they’ll be looking forward to that. Is there anything they could look forward to, changes in the upcoming year as any new products that were coming or is it just kind of continue to explore what we can do with it and give feedback.
Annika Ingelhammar: We’re always trying to improve and to see whatever the high speed Wi-Fi can offer in terms of business opportunities and we have some things that are going to be launched hopefully not too far away in the future. … We have some interesting things in the pipeline but it’s a little too early to talk about it.
Don Buchman: Ok pretty exciting and pretty exciting working with it. Going back to the innovation side. You know you do a lot of technology yourself. That’s what’s been interesting is like, it’s your portal. And so do you want to talk a little bit about maybe the other the partnership with Viasat where SAS brings their technologies and designs you know maybe around a portal and on how that integration went and why that was important. SARS.
Gunilla Ait El-Mekki: Yeah we started up to see well how would the portal look like. We rather quickly came to the solution. Also by discussing with you that we would use our own platform. So we don’t really have the portal on board. We do have it on ground and it’s a page on our website. And by that we can do a lot more things easier and really capitalize on what we do and what do we have us offering sound products on ground and on the on the normal Web site. And that has been a very successful development I think. And you have done some on your end and we have done quite a lot on our end but I think that’s really also to use the already existing good digital platform that SAS had developed before. So we try to tie in all other products onto that one as well.
Don Buchman: Okay good. So that’s kind of a it’s a full experience passenger.
Gunilla Ait El-Mekki: Absolutely.
Don Buchman: SAS branded. So it’s really great but I’m glad we were able to help support that vision, sort of support that outcome. Okay. So I think we’re kind of coming to the end of our time. Is there any kind of parting thoughts for the Scandinavian traveler out there that’s you know kind of now that the narrow body fleet in Europe has got great connectivity on it.
Annika Ingelhammar: Yeah I think we never mentioned that but we are halfway through the rollout right now and I think that is a great step when we realized that it was like oh wow we are there. It will still take a while but that is something that I think is very very nice to see.
Don Buchman: It’s always important for the for the passenger to know they’re going to have a high expectation.
Annika Ingelhammar: Yeah and you do have quite a high probability to go on a plane now. So that also enables us to communicate in a different way and do other things. And I hope also that we during the next year will be able to see a little bit more in terms of what we never want to talk too much about as an airline — but irregularities. How we can support passengers because we can give them information quicker when they are onboard …
Don Buchman: Yeah, irregularities happen, but if you get information quicker that might lessen the impact.
Annika Ingelhammar: But not only in the negative sense but also ‘Okay I have a connecting flight’ that you in a more easier way can inform them and our crew are on already really empowered by having the apps connected so they can go and talk to the passengers who might have a tight connection or whatever it could be.
Don Buchman: Which just sounds like an excellent use case. In following social media, looks like we get a lot of positive response, at least the ones that I read. It’s just you know it just seems to be a very good market reaction.
Gunilla Ait El-Mekki: Yeah yeah. We’re very happy about that. Definitely.
Annika Ingelhammar: We want to say look out for the bump on the plane and the high speed Wi-Fi sign.
Don Buchman: Yeah. And was it streaming onboard? The tagline is …?
Gunilla Ait El-Mekki: Onboard we say “Buckle up, high speed Wi-Fi on board.’
Don Buchman: Yeah excellent excellent. Right well thank you Annika and thank you Gunilla for the time here today. And I think that’s gonna wrap up our fourth podcast in the series.
Annika Ingelhammar: Thank you.
Gunilla Ait El-Mekki: Thank you.