A Latam narrowbody undergoing Wi-Fi IFE system installation Latam Airines
A Latam narrowbody undergoing Wi-Fi IFE system installation.

How Latam Installed Wi-Fi In 235 Aircraft In 20 Months

People, processes and proactivity behind Latam’s quick IFE project.

Latam installed wireless inflight entertainment (IFE) systems in 235 narrowbodies over 20 months—on budget and on time—at five MRO facilities throughout Latin America. “We knew we had to get this product to market fast,” says Justin Siegel, the airline’s vice presient of fleet projects. “But the big feat was really how we made it very fast and very efficient.”

While the airline started looking at wireless IFE in 2012 and saw it would take four years, it was not until 2014 that the project went forward. However, it moved quickly: Only six months after deciding to install wireless IFE, the first aircraft was modified in December 2014, making Latam the first Latin American airline with this on-board technology. The last installation was done in August 2016.

Installing wireless IFE is not a complex modification—it basically involves installing routers, a server and the connections that enable them to work. “While there are not many part numbers, ensuring that any passenger device will work with the system” is more complex, as are “the complexities of dealing with the connected aircraft, which has many implications with authorities,” says Siegel.

Wireless IFE installations are different from other cabin modifications in that they require both aviation airworthiness authority approval and sign-off from telecommunications regulatory agencies because communications regulations covering Wi-Fi are not aviation-specific. Latam also needed approvals from agencies in Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Ecuadaor and Peru.

Project Backbone

Siegel credits the “Project Performance Pyramid,” which includes three key focal points: people, processes and proactivity. Establishing people focal points—across areas such as marketing, maintenance and operations—as well as placing employees with the right experience and enthusiasm in place was imperative, says Siegel. Because every narrowbody aircraft had to come out of service, tight coordination between different parts of the airline was necessary.

To ensure efficient processes, Latam standardized them and used Agile project management, as well as the right governance to keep the IFE installation on track. The process included a system to manage opportunities and contingencies, which allowed the airline to adjust without interrupting operations when situations arose. For example, if aircraft availability shifted due to an aircraft-on-ground incident or reassignment across the fleet, Latam would assess whether it made sense to schedule that aircraft for installation: Did an MRO have space? Was the installation kit ready? Could the mainline spare that aircraft?

Proactively managing the big project, the third part of the pyramid, was also critical. Three significant elements were anticipating Brazil customs complexities, preparing software solutions if telecommunications approvals from each country did not come through and actively working with Zodiac, supplier of the Rave wireless IFE system.

Siegel says having a “high level of engagement with the supplier from the beginning” was key because not only was the airline installing the wireless IFE, at the same time, “we were doing product improvement, too,” he notes. 

“When we first started installing the system, we were seeing 80% availability for our passengers,” Siegel says. But as it upgraded hardware and software throughout the project—at least four changes were made— the system’s availability climbed to 95%.

The airline proactively tracked the supply chain and MRO progress because it knew parts could become a bottleneck, says Siegel. It initially sourced more parts than were expected to be needed and “allocated parts to the closest location to where we thought we’d need them,” he says, with the bulk being at one of its main logistics hubs in Brazil, Miami or Santiago. “Predispositioning parts and extra spares was a key enabler,” says Siegel.

Credit: Latam Airines

Lessons Learned

The new project benefited from knowledge gained from 23 other fleet projects at Latam over the past 10 years, which the airline compiled in a best practices playbook called the Blue Book. Lessons learned from the Wi-Fi project will be added.

Of course, the Wi-Fi project’s success was contingent on the five MROs, three external and two internal: Aeroman (El Salvador); Latam in Santiago, Chile, and Latam in Sao Carlos, Brazil; Mexicana MRO Services; and TAP Maintenance & Engineering Brazil (Rio de Janeiro). Latam chose the aftermarket service providers based on scheduling flexibility, pricing and quality.

Throughout the 235 Wi-Fi installations, Latam updated metrics on a high-level dashboard and shared them with the MROs, which created a competition to decrease turnaround times. It worked. “We were very transparent. We showed how much time each aircraft took at each MRO,” along with best practices, such as how to sequence and preposition parts—so each MRO learned how to improve planning tasks and sequencing, says Siegel. The results? “We were able to reduce the installation period from six days per aircraft to less than two days,” he says. The budget was boosted by having the flexibility to pull aircraft in-house for the modification so it did not incur third-party costs.

Latam’s Brazil facility ended up completing almost half (116) of the installations, followed by Latam Chile (73), TAP (17), Mexicana MRO Services (25) and Aeroman (4).  

The uptick in passengers using the service is encouraging. “We thought passengers would have pick-up rates in the teens,” Siegel says. But in Chile, “more than 30% of passengers are using onboard Wi-Fi,” he notes.

Siegel highly recommends that airlines and MROs capture knowledge from such projects, as Latam has in its Blue Book, and reflect on how less rigidity and more flexible planning can deliver results.

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