Everything you need to know about Qatar Airways’ inflight entertainment

Nov 20, 2019

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Inflight entertainment (IFE) and onboard Wi-Fi can make or break a flight. In fact, cabin features like IFE accounted for 15% of the factors we considered when ranking the best and worst airlines of 2019. While some airlines are parting from backseat screens — and some passengers are happy to see them go — others are doing what they can to provide passengers with more options and a better experience. Babar Rahman, Qatar Airways’ head of global marketing and inflight entertainment and connectivity joins Talking Points this week to discuss the future of IFE and how Qatar is enhancing its onboard experience across all cabins.

“We are pushing really fast and forward to ensure that the remaining fleet is connected on broadband Wi-Fi as soon as possible. We’ll essentially become the only airline with a full fleet of broadband connectivity onboard.”

On today’s episode you’ll learn the technical details behind Qatar’s IFE experience, the limitations the airline is trying to overcome, and what makes Qatar’s airport experience one of the best. Qatar’s beloved Qsuite may have took home the TPG award for Best International Business Class and be one of TPG’s favorite products, but Babar explains why TPG should consider flying in their economy class.

“Once you experience our economy class, you would understand that why there is no need for a premium economy.”

“Digital is the core of all the decisions that we’re making within the IFE structure and the broader organization. And yes, absolutely. Streaming is the thing  passengers would need in the future and that is something we are ensuring that we are capable of as well as delivering.”

Related: The ultimate guide to Qatar Qsuite

You can play this episode above, or wherever you get your podcasts.

Full Transcript:

Brian Kelly: Welcome to this episode of Talking Points. Today we have the VP of Global Marketing and Inflight Entertainment and Connectivity of Qatar Airways, Babar Rahman.

Babar Rahman: So we’ll essentially become the only airline with full [inaudible 00:00:18] broadband connectivity onboard.

Brian Kelly: That’s ahead on this episode of Talking Points right after this.

Brian Kelly: Babar. Thank you so much for joining us.

Babar Rahman: Thank you Brian. Nice to be here.

Brian Kelly: Now I’ve got a very important question, because it’s going to set the tone for the whole podcast. I’ve been told it’s Qatar [Kat-tar]. Some people say Qatar [Cut-ter]. I’ve been told the real way to say it is with some sort of grumble in the throat. What is the actual way to say your airline? Let’s settle it now.

Babar Rahman: So the actual way to say is this Qatar [Cut-tar]. Qatar Airways. I mean, that’s in the dialect how you would say…

Brian Kelly: Qatar.

Babar Rahman: Qatar. But of course somehow it might be difficult to pronounce for some accents. So you can also call it in English, we call it Qatar [Cat-tar].

Brian Kelly: Qatar. Qatar Airways. So people can call it whatever they want as long as they’re booking plane tickets.

Babar Rahman: Absolutely. On one of the best airlines on the planet.

Brian Kelly: So did you always know that you wanted to get into the aviation business? Has this been a career dream of yours?

Babar Rahman: Well, to be honest with you, I wanted to be a pilot.

Brian Kelly: Oh.

Babar Rahman: And that’s how it all began. But for some reason or the other, I was not able to finish pilot school. So I decided okay, I might as well go into management.

Brian Kelly: Okay.

Babar Rahman: And I finished up courses in my bachelor’s in, actually, computer sciences, and then I went on and did my double MBA in management and the other one in international marketing.

Brian Kelly: Okay. I feel like an underachiever right now with my undergrad in Spanish and Economics from the University of Pittsburgh. So, did you grow up in Qatar?

Babar Rahman: No, I’ve been in Qatar for the last 15 years. So it is like a home.

Brian Kelly: Yeah.

Babar Rahman: There is no other place that I would think about going for the time being. I mean, it’s a wonderful place. I mean, the amount of achievement the country is pushing forward or the country has achieved; what it’s hosting in two, three years time — that would be the FIFA world cup in Qatar in 2022. So there is no better place to be for the time being but being in Qatar.

Brian Kelly: So how did you get to Qatar Airways? What was your career arc that brought you?

Babar Rahman: About 15 years ago I was working for an agency, an advertising agency, and I was given a call from HR of Qatar Airways. I mean, it was a relatively unknown brand.

Brian Kelly: Yeah, 15 years ago. What was the fleet size?

Babar Rahman: Exactly. It was about 30, 35 on fleet and it was equal amount of destinations. So I never heard of the airline and I was told that, “Hey look, if you want to come and join a growing brand, a growing airline, come speak with us. We want somebody in our commercial marketing division.” It was not a difficult decision. I felt that it is a place where you would have an input and that you can be creative. It’s not an established brand, which means that you have more say in growing that to where it is.

Brian Kelly: Yeah. That’s a challenge and an opportunity.

Babar Rahman: Absolutely. And 15 years down the road, been doing commercial marketing, then was moved to sponsorships, then inflight entertainment connectivity about four years ago. And then, more recently, I’m overseeing global marketing and communications for the airline.

Brian Kelly: So that’s a lot of different things that you’re focused on.

Babar Rahman: Yes.

Brian Kelly: Especially because of all airlines — so we’re, today, recording this at the Airline Passenger Experience Conference where Qatar always takes home awards in the inflight space. So global marketing and inflight, those are wildly different realms at an airline. How do you bring it all together?

Babar Rahman: So look, in our perspective we don’t see it as two very different elements, you know what I mean? Essentially your inflight attainment is your front-facing hardware to the passenger, and global marketing is how you are growing your brand and awareness in front of the same consumer as well. So essentially it’s a good marriage, whereby you’re taking your global marketing efforts and equally you’re positioning your inflight screens, which are essentially your channels to your passengers, and putting your messages out there as well. And, of course, also it is like running a TV channel, right? Whereby you have to see what your consumers want. You need to go into data analysis. Who’s traveling, what are they watching, what they want to watch, and then, accordingly, make those decisions. So it’s more quantitative, and I think it’s just a natural marriage between marketing and inflight entertainment that you bring that together and show that, you know, your message is absolutely clear. And you’re delivering from the data analysis that comes through your marketing efforts to deliver them on the IFE side of things as well.

Brian Kelly: The airlines spend billions of dollars a year on content from studios — how does it work? So when you go out to buy new content, you have a team of people constantly trying to get the new movies. Qatar, you’ve got a global audience on board. So you’ve got to be buying tons of content. So you’re just always on the lookout for new content for your inflight entertainment?

Babar Rahman: Absolutely. Look, the new content, as you know, in the content buying cycle … I mean, whenever new content is available, it’s available to all airlines. I mean, what is the more difficult essence is, how do you bring the right content to your screens? And that, again, drills down to the fact of: Who are your customers? What are they watching, what do they want to watch? And accordingly you go and have a team set out. We do have a team, to answer the question. Yes, we have a number of smart people who are looking at — not on a monthly but on a daily basis — looking at the data, who’s watching, what kind of content we require. And accordingly, work with the studios, that is a [inaudible 00:04:52] — apart from what you get in general of new titles that you get onboard, you also have to see what other titles that we have to get which are relevant to our passengers.

Brian Kelly: I have a question. So when I watch a movie in my QSuite and it’s a new Hollywood hit, do you pay that per view or are you paying to license all of it? How does it work?

Babar Rahman: Brian, you’re taking me on thin ice now.

Brian Kelly: Well, not saying how much you pay… But how does the structure — I mean I’m sure it’s similar to most airlines.

Babar Rahman: Without compromising how the deals work. I would say that it’s based on an overall basis, it’s based on how many passengers are flying on your airline on an annual basis.

Brian Kelly: Got it.

Babar Rahman: And based on that, your calculations are done.

Brian Kelly: What’s the future of IFE like streaming and Netflix, and allowing people all the different streaming services to have that on board. Is that a priority to get people to bring their own streaming and connect on board?

Babar Rahman: Well, Brian, I think you answered the question yourself that yes, you know the future is streaming. And that’s why in Qatar what we have done is we invested a lot in bringing broadband connectivity and that capability on board our aircraft and ensuring that when our passengers…. I mean, streaming is the next, I wouldn’t even say next, it is the next thing. I mean, people still want to get on board today and start streaming their own Netflix accounts, their own Amazon Primes, and so on and so forth.

Brian Kelly: Hilton’s doing that. Singapore Airlines has it where if you stop … with KrisFlyer number if you watch, you may go halfway but the next time you’re on board you can pick up where you left off. That’s pretty cool.

Babar Rahman: Absolutely. And that, again, requires an infrastructure on the background to achieve. From our side, digital is the core of all the decisions that we’re making within the IFE structure and the broader organization. And yes, absolutely, streaming is the thing, and which is what passengers would need in the future, and that is something we are ensuring that we are capable, as well, of delivering.

Brian Kelly: What’s the current state of inflight Wi-Fi at Qatar? Do you have the same provider on all planes, or the newer planes are equipped with the newest? How do you keep a standardized experience so that people expect something, but also keep innovating?

Babar Rahman: That’s a good question. I’m glad you asked, Brian. What we have done in the region, and when I say the region, the MENA region — we are the only airline, for the time being, which is offering broadband, true broadband connectivity. For the moment we have got half of our fleet is on broadband Wi-Fi and we are pushing really fast and forward to ensure that the remaining fleet is connected on broadband Wi-Fi as soon as possible. So we’ll essentially become the only airline with the full fleet of broadband connectivity onboard.

Brian Kelly: And what does that mean speed-wise? You can watch YouTube videos?

Babar Rahman: Absolutely. You can watch YouTube videos. So without going into too much commercial details — that you get on board, one hour on a broadband is on us. Look at the experience, how you enjoy it. It doesn’t allow you to do streaming, but if you buy a small package, it’s a small dollar value that you pay. You get the whole connection for the full flight and that includes streaming, that includes downloads and as much as bandwidth as you want to.

Brian Kelly: And how does that work? Is it satellite broadband?

Babar Rahman: It is satellite broadband. Because since we are a true global carrier, ATG doesn’t work for us at the moment.

Brian Kelly: Yeah.

Babar Rahman: So it’s a true satellite provider, and currently is based around two providers. But as I said that, for the passenger, providers are irrelevant. And at the end of the day, they want to see what they’re getting on their mobile devices or what are they getting on their own devices, and how fast is the connectivity. So we’re choosing the right supplier to deliver us that experience.

Brian Kelly: Does it work when more people use it? I know in the U.S. a lot of airlines and more people, especially on business routes, it cripples to a halt. How do you prevent that from happening with your system?

Babar Rahman: So we have a deployed a system on board, it’s called traffic management. And what we do is we see how the passengers are using. The data would say, for example, if somebody who has paid for the streaming service, they will automatically get the broader share of the connectivity onboard and whoever’s on our one hour free wifi service — I mean, they will not get a bad experience, but they would essentially get a lower bandwidth. So essentially we do traffic shaping, and that’s based to an AI as well, on the back end, to ensure that whatever is coming from the pipe to the aircraft is accordingly distributed and delivered across the floor.

Brian Kelly: Would you say is inflight Wi-Fi a big moneymaker for Qatar?

Babar Rahman: It doesn’t begin from the fact that we want to over Wi-Fi because we want to make big money. Wi-Fi is a service offering, which includes everything, from what we serve on board in catering … It’s essentially the passenger experience that’s delivered, right? So Wi-Fi is one of those really important things that we have to deliver. It’s one of those things which I keep saying that you know, IFE [inaudible]… who wants to watch movies on board? But look, today it’s a norm. You need it and now it’s going into the next level. So for us it’s an entire service offering. Wi-Fi essentially delivers your whole digital ecosystem. Moving forward, and I’m literally talking about not years from now, I mean in the very short term, you’ll see people making a choice of an airline which is able to deliver Wi-Fi onboard and true broadband Wi-Fi onboard. And there’s a huge commercial value in it.

Brian Kelly: Airline headphones generally annoy me. I’m very brand specific to my Bose QC 35 Bluetooth. I think that might be a reason why I’ve just, I have my Mac Book and my Bluetooth and I always forget the plug and the cord. So when will we finally have passengers able to use their own Bluetooth headsets on IFE?

Babar Rahman: Stay tuned.

Brian Kelly: Stay tuned. All right.

Babar Rahman: Look, essentially it has to do with technicalities, in essence. I mean, that currently there are a lot of tests out there which is a providers and suppliers are checking how that technology can be delivered in an environment or other closed tube whereby you’ve got 300 plus passengers trying to connect on their Bluetooth headphones. How will that work? So it’s more of a technical — I wouldn’t call it a limitation — a technical hurdle, which I am 100% will be overcome very soon. And as I said, stay tuned and you will hear some good news.

Brian Kelly: You piqued my interest. I want to get back to your point you made that inflight products are part of the brand and brand spending. And I can imagine, working at an airline, there’s a lot of accountants and number crunchers saying, “That’s too expensive.” Do you really add brand value to that experience? How do you guys internally say, “You know what? This is going to be expensive in an economy seat to put this piece of equipment.”

Babar Rahman: Absolutely. And look, I mean, for us as an airline, we are lucky we have a very smart leadership. I mean His Excellency, our group chief executive, for him product is paramount and above everything. And yes, we do make calculated decisions internally that if you’re introducing a product onboard, how will that affect our bottom line? But as I said, the product always takes prime. That’s why you know you’re able to deliver products like the QSuite, I mean, broadband connectivity, bringing first-in-the-industry NFC on board. And those innovations don’t just happen if you just say, “Look, we’re going to put this on board, but we’ll have an effect on the bottom line.” The bottom line has to be managed, but equally the product has to be up there in regards to how you want to position your brand.

Brian Kelly: All right, we’re going to take a quick break now. I’ll see you right after we hear from our sponsors.

[Commercial break]

Brian Kelly: Welcome back to Talking Points. Let’s jump back into it. Let’s switch to your global marketing role. So it’s got to be fun. So you, in partnerships with FIFA, other sports brands, events around the world — so you probably have a pretty fun job. Is that safe to say?

Babar Rahman: It is interesting. It’s quite a big task to manage a global brand such as Qatar Airways. It is not an easy task. But what we do is that, through our efforts in global marketing, I mean, and that includes various different [inaudible 00:11:32] communication efforts that we have to put on the front to ensure that our brand stands there. Because you’re living in an environment where people are exposed to different various mediums, and brands are trying to capture them one way or the other, trying to put them on the seat. So you have to see how you make your product differentiated from the others. At the end of the day it is a seat and the tube that you’re flying from point A to point B. How do you want people (to) want to try your product, and that, in essence … while it’s a fun job, it is quite the — I would say difficult. And at the same time it is quite interesting, especially when you see the results of the campaigns that you put forward.

Brian Kelly: What is your thought on influencers and social media and sharing that inflight experience? I’m sure it can go both ways. Are influencers a thorn in your side, or do you view them as a big asset to the brand?

Babar Rahman: A big asset to the brand. Absolutely. I mean, people today — for example, I when I go on a vacation somewhere, I do a whole bunch of research online and I also have a few influencers and bloggers which I personally follow. You’re one of them.

Brian Kelly: Okay. I was going to say….

Babar Rahman: And I do make those decisions based on what experiences they deliver. And even a destination, for example, when you say, okay, where do we fly in the world? Where do I want a vacation next summer? These influencers are essentially influencing your decisions. So for them, they are our partners. We see them as our partners, and as a channel for us to communicate our brand and let people experience our brand in a very natural and in a very real setting.

Brian Kelly: What would you say to someone who’s never really heard of Qatar Airways in a new route. Explaining to them what the economy experience is like on Qatar versus other carriers? How is flying Qatar different than any other carrier?

Babar Rahman: So, I mean, number one is that our economy class is, again, one of the best in the world. And we recently also took the experience, which is already up there, to a new level. We introduced new products in economy, which makes it as a different product altogether. And really it comes down to our marketing efforts and communication efforts and how do we promote that? One of which is very importantly, are the influencers, for them to experience the product.

Brian Kelly: If you’re thinking I’m going to fly coach, I’m just going to have to stop you right there. I’m kidding.

Babar Rahman: You will be pleasantly surprised.

Brian Kelly: What are the key things you would say to someone at a dinner party saying, “You’ve got to fly our airline.” How the Qatar passenger experience is different.

Babar Rahman: So it is like walking into a 5-star hotel, in essence. I mean, if you want to have that experience on an airline, which unfortunately doesn’t exist on a lot of carriers today, if you want to have that experience and if you really want to see how the product is so different than our competitors, you really have to try Qatar for once. And that’s what we always get. People who have tried the product once, they become our loyal customers for life.

Brian Kelly: Let’s talk about connecting through Doha. I had the ability on the A3 51,000 flight, which I was on. We did the low pass over the Corniche. I’d flown Qatar, and a number of times, most recently with my parents and a friend in the Qsuite — we were playing cards and everyone was looking at us like, “You guys are playing cards on a plane?” It was, like, one of the best flights of my life. But let’s talk about Doha, like connecting in Doha. Why is that appealing? I can speak to it. It’s a great airport. And how are you guys investing there?

Babar Rahman: Look, as you rightfully said that, we’ve invested a lot in the product up in the air and on the ground, and transit experience or hub experience is one of the more paramount things for us as well. So our airport is one of the best in the world. It’s as you must have seen the recent results of a various different ratings, that it’s ranked one of the top. And as I said, when you go on Qatar Airways you’re having an experience of a 5-star airline, a 5 star hotel up in the air. It’s similar to when you land in Hamad International Airport as well. You will walk through the airport and you feel like you’re in a hotel. The setting has been done as such — the airport experience is not that great, let’s be honest. I mean you walk through airports, you’re like, “Oh my God, when am I going to get on the next flight.” So we want to make that experience more pleasurable. So we want to make the airport experience as a destination experience. So when you land into HR, you have this calm, cool, collected … even the lights are dimmed to a certain point and that’s done very scientifically by how do you feel more calm walking through an airport. It is designed as a big space, so you don’t feel claustrophobic, and it’s designed as a space where you feel like you’re in a high-end mall or a high-end hotel.

Brian Kelly: At 1 a.m. the buzz going through that airport — it’s like, it’s a really cool place. So let’s talk about the future. What can Qatar Airways passengers expect in 2020?

Babar Rahman: As I said, we always have been taking it to the next level, and as of recently, this year we announced our new economy class product as introduced by His Excellency. It will be introduced next year in some of our fleet, and of course the QSuite remains our or the industry’s flagship product and business class.

Brian Kelly: Congratulations on that, by the way.

Babar Rahman: Thank you so much.

Brian Kelly: You won TPG awards. We had our readers vote and our editorial staff — we reviewed all the top, and you guys got the first ever “Best Business Class in the World.”

Babar Rahman: Thank you.

Brian Kelly: Now I have to ask, one of the biggest trends in aviation has been premium economy, like true premium economy cabins. In the U.S., we’ve seen huge investments. You guys have always said no because your economy is premium economy. Is that still the case?

Babar Rahman: I think that’s why you need to take that 2-hour flight, Brian.

Brian Kelly: Am I putting you on thin ice again?

Babar Rahman: No, no, absolutely not. But I think you should really experience the product. I mean, once you experience our economy class product, you would understand that why there is no need for a premium economy.

Brian Kelly: Makes sense. Now, Qatar has been expanding a lot lately. What is your favorite new destination, say, added over the last couple of years in your route map, that you love to visit for vacation?

Babar Rahman: Oof. Oh, that’s a good question. I mean, firstly, I don’t take a lot of vacation.

Brian Kelly: Why not?

Babar Rahman: Well, as you rightfully said, it’s not an easy task to manage such a global brand, and then also manage the inflight entertainment product, and the amount of projects we have in the pipeline for both IFE and also marketing. I mean, it requires a lot of time, but you do it by heart. I mean it’s really been one of the best pleasures of my life, professional pleasures of my life, to work for an airline like Qatar Airways. So coming back to your point, where would I like to go on vacation?

Brian Kelly: Or where do you want you go maybe?

Babar Rahman: I would really love to…

Brian Kelly: You guys have added a bunch in Southeast Asia.

Babar Rahman: Oh, we’ve added a whole bunch. I would actually want to, and trust me or not, I would really want to do the Oakland longest flight. I really want to try that.

Brian Kelly: What plane is currently on that?

Babar Rahman: It’s on a 777 200 LR. It’s with the Qsuite. So if you really want to enjoy the QSuite experience for the longest time in the world, I mean, you get on that flight.

Brian Kelly: That brings up a good point. I haven’t been to New Zealand in a couple of years, so I’m adding that to my list of things to do as well. And I’m very curious, are you a window or aisle seat person when you’re not in a QSuite? You know, of course in your own ….

Babar Rahman: I’m a window person.

Brian Kelly: Window person. Me too. Yes. We’ve had a lot of aisle people on the podcast but I think we’re going to have to do a checklist soon who’s winning. But Babar, thank you so much for your time.

Babar Rahman: Thanks a lot ,Brian.

Brian Kelly: Congratulations on the world-class product that you guys have built. I’d flown Qatar Airways a number of times and always look forward to flying again. So look forward to testing out your new innovations in passenger.

Babar Rahman: Perfect. Thank you. Brian, looking forward to welcoming you onboard soon.

Brian Kelly: That’s it for this episode of Talking Points. A huge thanks to Babar Rahman, the VP of Global Marketing and Inflight Entertainment and Connectivity at Qatar Airways. Thank you.

Babar Rahman: Thank you.

Brian Kelly: Once again, a huge thanks to the entire APEX Expo team where this episode was recorded. Dr. Joe Leader, the CEO of APEX, Robin Applebaum and her team for pulling it all together for TPG, and many thanks to the LA Convention Center and its staff for being so accommodating. And my own crew, Christie Matsui, Becca Denenberg, Ned Russell, Scott Mayerowitz and Nat Roe And to my podcast team, Margaret Kelley and Caroline Schagrin. I’m Brian Kelly. Safe travels.

Featured image by JT Genter / The Points Guy

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