Wrong Connexion

Imagine sitting in your 747 seat high above the Atlantic enjoying the type of high-speed broadband internet access you get at your home or office.

An enticing prospect, isn’t it? That’s what Boeing thought when it ploughed an estimated $1bn into development of the Wi-Fi-in-the-skies technology it named, rather in the manner of a designer clothes label, Connexion By Boeing.

Unfortunately it’s now a case of Bye Bye Connexion. The venture just didn’t fly as a business, and the aerospace giant has pulled the plug before it lost it any more cash.

So what went wrong? In an age when the internet is carrying all before it as a tool for business and entertainment alike, how could extending its reach into the isolated realm of the aircraft cabin be anything other than a winner?

The immediate temptation is to blame the technology, but in this case that would be wide of the mark. By common consensus, Connexion worked like a dream. A custom-designed antenna used satellite communications to provide a seamless broadband connection anywhere in the world.

Indeed, a few years ago Boeing took a party of UK journalists on a special flight to show off its new baby, and those on the trip were suitably impressed.

No, Boeing’s engineers gave their bosses a system that was more than up to doing what was asked of it. In fact, the problem was that nobody wanted it. Well, not exactly nobody, but take-up was far, far below the level needed to sustain Connexion as a going concern.

Problem number one was the airlines, who were supposed to queue up to pay Boeing to fit Connexion to their fleet. In fact only a handful of carriers did so, and none of those were the big North American airlines Boeing was convinced would bite its hand off.

The reason is not hard to fathom. Connexion was conceived in the late 1990s and born as a business in late 2000/early 2001. In terms of the aviation industry, that makes it the child of a bygone era.

Since September 2001 most airlines have had more on their minds than putting broadband in the cabin and Connexion, which is expensive to fit, slipped way down their list of priorities. Indeed, given the events of the last few weeks worrying about the quality of on-board web surfing seems rather odd.

Problem number two turned out to be the passengers. Among the handful of airlines that did fit Connexion, interest in using the service turned out to be low. Maybe a dozen passengers per flight were prepared to shell out £15 or so to stay connected for a whole trip. That meant the airlines were almost certainly taking more on crisps and nuts than they were on broadband, and you don’t have to spend upwards of $100,000 to put a box of snacks on board.

So Connexion was done for by what, admittedly with the benefit of hindsight, looks like a shaky business case, and the unpredictable events of the last few years.

Other technologies will appear in the passenger cabin. At least one other, backed by Airbus, promises to offer pared-down connectivity via mobile phones and blackberries. This will be less advanced than Connexion but, crucially, far cheaper.

Connexion was a bold attempt by Boeing, but perhaps its epitaph should be: ‘there may be a gap in the market, but is there a market in the gap?’

Andrew Lee


The Engineer & The Engineer Online