“Airlines are herd animals. Once one starts moving, the others move as well,” observes Frederik van Essen, Inmarsat Aviation vice president for strategy and business development. When it comes to inflight connectivity, the herd is gathering momentum, creating a surge of retrofit work.
But that momentum depends on geography. U.S. carriers quickly adopted Wi-Fi because they were the first to have reliable air-to-ground networks. Air-to-ground uses lower-drag antennas, making it cheaper than satellite-based solutions. It is great over land but does not work over large oceans.
“Eighty percent of U.S. airlines are now connected, and they are moving quite aggressively,” van Essen says. “Wi-Fi is so common in the U.S. that they apologize if it’s not available, rather than the other way around.”
One U.S. carrier that has conducted a major Wi-Fi rollout is Delta Air Lines. “We started our partnership with Gogo in 2008,” says Chris Buckner, Delta’s director of onboard products. By 2010, the carrier had equipped its entire mainline domestic fleet with Gogo’s air-to-ground connectivity.
Since then, Delta has added Gogo’s 2Ku satellite-based Wi-Fi on its international aircraft, growing its connected fleet to around 1,100 aircraft. Buckner says just a “handful” of aircraft still need Wi-Fi.
Delta is now entering a second phase, upgrading its domestic fleet to 2Ku connectivity. “This is around 30% complete,” Buckner notes. The work is primarily internal and should be finished in 2018.
“North America might seem saturated, but the installations are 5-7 years old, so we see a second wave of connectivity upgrades,” points out Lukas Bucher, Lufthansa Technik head of aircraft modification and connectivity programs.
European airlines also are proceeding with installations after a comparatively slower start. Air-to-ground was not an option until now and against the backdrop of a fiercely competitive market, airlines were reluctant to pay for satellite-based connectivity and its higher-drag antennas, at least until someone else did.
Bucher estimates 85% of European aircraft are offline, but this is changing, with all three majors—Air France-KLM Group, International Airlines Group (IAG) and Lufthansa Group—embarking on high-priority connectivity pushes. The herd is gaining pace.
“In Europe, we are now seeing catch-up quite late in the game,” says van Essen. Multiple latest-technology satellite launches also have improved available bandwidth, while launch overheads have stayed stable, cutting the price tags.
Although traction is gaining only now, some European airlines were in the market quite early. Lufthansa first installed Connexion by Boeing 14 years ago. Boeing decided to discontinue the service, but Lufthansa kept some equipment installed for future use. “We assumed that at some point further down the road, passengers would want to use it and pay,” explains Bucher.
In 2011, Lufthansa tried again. By 2014, it had equipped all of its widebodies with Panasonic’s Global Communication Suite (GCS). More recently, Lufthansa became the launch customer for Inmarsat’s satellite-based GX Aviation. In October 2016, Lufthansa Technik began fitting Wi-Fi into 600 Lufthansa Group narrowbodies.
“We’ve done way beyond 100 installations, and we are currently doing up to 30 aircraft month,” Bucher reports. “We have 10 or 11 lines in parallel. The installation should finish in 2018.”
Lufthansa Technik has narrowed installation times to just four days from 14-18 when it started in 2003. “That’s not a one-off. We do that on a continuous basis,” Bucher says. “We have proven fewer than four days is doable, but we will only offer that when we can get the aircraft reliably back into service.”
Meanwhile, IAG is equipping its long-haul aircraft with Gogo’s satellite-based 2Ku system, joining Airbus A330s operated by Aer Lingus, Iberia and Level, which already have Panasonic connectivity.
“On our short-haul aircraft, we’ll be introducing Inmarsat’s new air-to-ground system—we will be the first airline to offer [this] connectivity,” says British Airways’ (BA) inflight entertainment and technology manager, Richard D’Cruze.
He is referring to Inmarsat’s European Aviation Network (EAN), which is close to going live. After years of preparation, Europe finally will have an integrated satellite and air-to-ground network, which could make inflight Wi-Fi more affordable and commonplace.
IAG is rolling out EAN across 132 BA A320-family aircraft, 125 at Vueling, 45 at Iberia and 39 at Aer Lingus. By 2019, 90% of IAG’s fleet will be equipped.
Despite this technology breakthrough, Europe’s low-cost carriers are still biding their time. Norwegian has offered short-haul connectivity for a while, but pack leaders EasyJet and Ryanair have yet to make a move.
The Middle East has two herds, those that were quick to move and those that have yet to move. Those early leaders are now moving to second- and third-generation systems, but the rest are pretty stagnant.
Qatar Airways is equipping 80 Airbus A350s and 53 Boeing 777s with GX Aviation, which is scheduled to go live later this year. The 777 upgrades are being conducted during heavy maintenance checks in the capital city of Doha; Qatar Airways is performing the touch work.
However, what is notable is that Inmarsat itself has secured European Aviation Safety Agency supplemental type certification (STC) for the 777 installations. An STC is usually sought by the maintenance organization performing the work.
Inmarsat’s vice president for the Middle East, Africa and South Asia, Ben Griffin, says this process reduces reliance on external MROs and enables Inmarsat to be more cost-effective. “Once we own the STC, we can apply it and make those efficiencies,” he explains. “This reflects our intent to go direct to the market with a full turnkey solution.”
As a result, Lufthansa Technik is picking up work from connectivity providers, which are establishing framework agreements with MROs and handling the installation for the airlines. “Under the old system, MROs dealt exclusively with an airline. That is history. Our customers are airlines, satellite-connectivity providers and system-delivery companies like Panasonic, Thales and so on,” says Griffin.
In the Asia-Pacific region, there is immense potential. “There is a lot of demand, but Asia is lagging behind the U.S. and Europe. This is the fastest-growing aviation market. Once they start installing, this is going to be a big thing,” van Essen predicts.
Lufthansa Technik’s Bucher agrees that Asia-Pacific and China have the greatest connectivity potential, with only 5% of their aircraft currently connected.
AirAsia made its move in November 2014, initially installing its short-haul fleet with Inmarsat SwiftBroadband L-band connectivity. Now 48 A320s are equipped. However, these aircraft could see upgraded systems after AirAsia signs a memorandum of understanding to fit its long-haul A330 fleet with GX Aviation.
“Our A330s have no existing equipment on board, so once we have the supplemental type certification [for GX Aviation]—which I’m told we will get in October or November—we want to roll it out quickly because we are behind the curve,” AirAsia X CEO Benyamin Ismail said in April. “We plan go full-fleet [with GX Aviation] in stages.”
Farther south, Air New Zealand, Qantas Airways and Virgin Australia are running head-to-head with their connectivity rollouts, with Qantas aiming to complete its domestic Boeing 737-800 and A330 installations in 2018.
Qantas engineers in Brisbane are installing ViaSat Ka-band satellite Wi-Fi on about 80 737-800 and A330s. The hardware fit-outs, which take around a week, started in mid-2017, and about 10 aircraft should be in service by late September. Qantas also is looking to extend the Wi-Fi rollout to its regional and international fleets.
“Inflight Wi-Fi has been on our wish list for quite a while, but the sheer size of Australia meant it was hard to offer a service that was fast and reliable. The NBN [Sky Muster satellite service] has made it possible,” Qantas Group CEO Alan Joyce notes.
Connectivity in Africa is still in its infancy. While service in Latin America also is lagging, Avianca and Gol are proceeding to equip their aircraft.
Gol is upgrading its fleet with Gogo’s 2Ku connectivity. The prototype installation was performed by an MRO in Miami, but Gol since has secured FAA and Brazilian National Civil Aviation Agency approval to do the work itself.
The process takes 5-7 days. Currently, 50 aircraft (44% of Gol’s fleet) have been equipped, with the remainder expected by October 2018. “We are dedicating the equivalent of one aircraft full-time to this project,” Gol Chief Experience Officer Paulo Miranda says.
In general, it takes about three months to start connectivity installations with an existing aircraft-equipment pairing, or 7-12 months for a new aircraft type and system combination, depending on the level of complexity, says Bucher.
“The number of aircraft and certification combinations is quite wide. Until all those combinations have been done, it will take time. Some airlines are choosing preexisting solutions because of the time frames needed to get started with those installations, especially those who are being squeezed by competitors,” he says.
This means airlines now are more willing to take aircraft out of service to install connectivity, rather than waiting until the next maintenance interval.
This could be good news for MROs, because as the potential stampede gathers momentum, it is leading to a healthy stream of work—even during the quieter summer months—as airlines try to keep pace with the herd.
From Retrofit to Line Fit
Connectivity has become not just a need but an expectation. This shift means airframers now are integrating connectivity infrastructure into new-build aircraft designs.
“The initial focus [for connectivity] was very much retrofit, but now we see major suppliers trying to get their equipment line-fitted. This is slow, but it is happening with all the OEMs, and we see it as standard going forward, adopting connectivity as line-fit. On all major aircraft, it will be a tick-box option within a few years,” says Inmarsat Aviation’s vice president for strategy and business development, Frederik van Essen.
Just as car manufacturers started installing data computers to get in-service information on their vehicles, airframers see value in using the data pipeline for real-time operational feedback.
“You may see the number of retrofits diminishing over time and [connectivity] being purely done on line-fit, but that’s a medium-term view,” says Inmarsat Aviation’s vice president for the Middle East, Africa and South Asia, Ben Griffin.
However, in the shorter-term—as more connected aircraft are produced—demand for retrofits is likely to pick up, as airlines look to modify their existing fleets to the same standards as their new-build aircraft.
Griffin added that securing a line-fit position is a complex, costly and lengthy process, as design and kit-component approvals can take months to years to secure: “Obviously, if it could be done quicker, we would prefer it, but [aircraft] are complex machines. Changing balance or structure is taken very seriously, as it should be.”
Who’s Doing The Work?
While there are a number of MRO organizations offering connectivity retrofits, larger airlines with their own maintenance organizations are tending to conduct their own installations. These often involve multiple aircraft types and large rollouts, so internal MROs are building experience and shortening the aircraft ground time needed to perform the work, often branching out into third-party installations.
“Any airline can go to any MRO—they all do it, and there is no shortage of installation capacity—but we do see a learning effect. The ones that stand out tend to be tied to large airlines that have gained a lot of experience, but other MROs are doing the work, too. There is no clear winner,” says Frederik van Essen, Inmarsat Aviation’s vice president for strategy and business development.
Lufthansa Technik is an example of an airline-affiliated MRO that is performing a substantial amount of third-party work and has just launched a dedicated “L Connect” brand.
What is Involved?
The work depends on the system being installed, but in general these are the steps:
• Mounting an antenna on top of the aircraft, which requires structural work
• Installing multiple wireless-access points in the cabin, involving the removal of some ceiling panels
• Installing servers to control the system
• Installing new wiring
“[The aircraft] goes through the initial preparation work, with removal of seats, bins, ceilings and the forward galley. The team then starts the installation process by adding the pre-kitted wire bundles, servers and other key components. The adaptor plate, antenna and radome are done by a special structural team. To maximize our hangar time for the aircraft, at the same time we are installing a USB system that will give four USB ports to every triple seat, and we are also changing the seat covers from fabric to synthetic leather,” Gol Chief Experience Officer Paulo Miranda says.