Inflight connectivity is set to be one of the most transformative technologies for airline passengers and crew alike in the next few years. As increasing numbers of carriers sign up to high-speed internet services, their customers finally can expect an online experience comparable to what they receive at home, while flight and cabin personnel will benefit from a burgeoning array of applications enabled by the plummeting price of bandwidth.
The third prong of inflight connectivey (IFC) is connecting aircraft systems to ground teams, manufacturers and maintenance companies to provide real-time updates, although the main benefits of this may take longer to realize than in the passenger and crew spaces.
While there are myriad potential uses for IFC, it is an enhanced passenger experience that is driving the business case for airlines. As ground-based transmitters proliferate and new high-capacity, high-throughput satellites are launched, the cost of bandwidth is falling, allowing airlines to offer affordable, improved internet service to passengers. Many carriers still charge for access, of course, although many provide it free to premium customers or for a certain period of time. Whatever the model, IFC is creeping up on passengers’ list of priorities, with at least one survey finding passengers would rather pay for inflight Wi-Fi than food.
“We now have global high-speed Wi-Fi that works well and reliably,” says Kurt Weidemeyer, vice president of Inmarsat Aviation. “Until now, a lot of airlines that have installed Wi-Fi have not gotten what they expected, but the high-throughput satellites now coming online open the door for customers to get what they thought they were getting the first time.”
In the past, aircraft too distant from ground transmitters had to use satellites designed to transmit TV signals, whereas the modern, Ka-band satellites from providers such as Inmarsat and Viasat are purpose-built to deliver to mobile receivers. Inmarsat currently has three Ka-band satellites providing global coverage, with a fourth in reserve, while Viasat has Ka-band coverage of North America, the Atlantic, the Caribbean, Brazil, Europe and the Middle East and Australia.
“What we have today is good enough for what people need over the next few years, but in the future, they will need more satellite capacity,” says Weidemeyer. To that end, Inmarsat is launching another satellite in 2019 and two more after that, while Viasat is planning three more satellites as it targets global coverage by 2022.
Theoretically, those providers’ Ka-band satellites can deliver more bandwidth than lower-frequency Ku-band technology, although the actual speed delivered to a passenger’s device depends on a host of other factors. Inflight internet provider Gogo uses a “2Ku” antenna that works with Ku-band satellites. Gogo CEO Oakleigh Thorne says its system “is capable of delivering as many hundreds of [megabytes per second] to an aircraft, but today satellite bandwidth is too expensive for the airlines, or passengers, to want to pay for that.”
Assessing which satellite system provides the fastest speeds is fraught with difficulty, as measurements can vary greatly at each stage of the data delivery chain. What is probably more important is the cost per kilobyte of data, since faster speeds mean little if airlines or their customers are unwilling to pay. However, increasing satellite capacity means these costs are falling rapidly.
“All other factors being equal, Wi-Fi availability often becomes a deciding factor for potential customers, and many airlines are prioritizing the installation of IFC,” says James MacDougall, senior director of connected systems at Honeywell Aerospace.
By the end of 2019, roughly 40% of commercial aircraft will have some form of IFC. Valour Consultancy estimates that 26,000 aircraft will be so equipped by 2026.
Most business for IFC providers is retrofitting aircraft rather than installing equipment on new-build aircraft. While airlines are typically ordering connectivity for new widebodies, most narrowbodies—the bulk of the global fleet—are still delivered without IFC.
This trend is opening an important new revenue stream for MRO providers that can make connectivity modifications, with Lufthansa Technik reporting growth of 6-15% per year for this segment. The German MRO provider estimates there will be IFC installations on 1,100-1,400 aircraft annually for the next five years, after which there will be a shift to upgrades as early IFC adopters renew contracts and switch to better equipment.
IFC installations are performed on a stand-alone basis and also as part of a heavy check, with installation times varying from under three days to up to two weeks. “An experienced maintenance facility usually completes one aircraft in 4-6 days, but there are only three or four companies on the planet currently capable of that,” says Lukas Bucher, head of product connectivity for Lufthansa Technik (LHT).
Inmarsat and Viasat both say that MRO capacity has not constrained their ability to roll out IFC. “If an airline wants to get the kit installed fast, there’s enough MRO capacity to get it done. What has been more of a limitation is the airline’s ability to take an aircraft out of service for three days,” says Don Buchman, vice president and general manager of Viasat’s commercial aviation business.
Providers of connectivity hardware are also keen to talk up the speed of installations. Honeywell says its Jetwave satcom system can be installed in less than four days, while Thales, which offers a “light” satcom system for crew and pilot connectivity called Flytlink, quotes 100 hr.
However, from a maintenance provider’s perspective, Bucher also notes that “hangar space is a precious good, which an MRO prefers to utilize for labor-intensive work.”
He adds: “The man-hour burn rates are about one-third of base maintenance activities.” Therefore, LHT has set up additional “low burn-rate production lines” at its facilities. In addition, the MRO provider offers a “Flexmod” installation that it can perform at an operator’s hub.
Bucher also notes that connectivity installations typically begin 6-9 months after contracts are signed, whereas OEM lead times can stretch beyond two years. “In cases where the OEM is not able to deliver the airline’s connectivity wish, those aircraft receive the installation shortly after delivery through an MRO,” he says.
Beyond the Passenger
After delivering reliable, capable internet to passenger devices, the next priority for airlines installing connectivity is to improve their own operations. Examples includes applications to allow pilots to check real-time weather data or to enable cabin crew to see booking information or communicate with ground teams.
“Airlines know there is some low-hanging fruit, for instance by hooking up crew EFBs [electronic flight bags] to understand missed flight connections and trying to reroute people, and by hooking up pilot EFBs to get real-time weather,” says Weidemeyer.
Buchman points out other applications such as voice chat for crew and online IT support, while also noting that cheaper satellite bandwidth can mean savings for airlines when transmitting data that would have previously gone out via pricier channels such as the Aircraft Communications Addressing and Reporting System (ACARS).
Even so, Eric Huber, Thales Vice President for Avionics Services says, “The first, and still primary, data communication in the cockpit is ACARS.”
“The connected aircraft is a solution of safety, convenience and efficiency and is no longer simply about Wi-Fi in the air,” contends MacDougall at Honeywell, which offers flight operations and maintenance applications under its “GoDirect” service.
The big question for airlines and connectivity providers is what comes after the “low-hanging fruit” of applications such as weather data and flight tracking. Linking connected aircraft systems such as engines and APUs seems the logical next step, although the industry is divided about the current use case for inflight connectivity in this respect.
“The transmission of maintenance fault data during the flight, through a connected eTechlog EFB application, will significantly enhance airline maintenance operations,” says Thales’ Huber. He adds that the Iridium satellite network will enable more efficient polar routes, although it should be noted that most passenger connectivity will not be operational over the poles.
Another evangelist for connected systems is Honeywell, which manufactures connected equipment such as APUs as well as connectivity avionics. It believes most airlines will seek to invest in predictive maintenance systems over the next 12 months and that this will be linked to more spending on connected technologies, a trend the company expects will accelerate in the next five years.
“Due to the huge potential for cost savings and improved operations, predictive maintenance is the primary area in which airlines are looking to invest,” says MacDougall.
On the other hand, wireless connectivity is not essential yet to the delivery of systems data, most of which still is downloaded on the ground rather than in flight. Buchman asks: “What’s the value of real-time versus near-real-time [transmission]?” Weidemeyer states that Inmarsat is “struggling” to find applications for inflight systems data that add appreciable value. However, both men agree that such applications will eventually come.
“Before, airlines wouldn’t even explore the idea [of system data transmission] because bandwidth was so expensive or limited. Now they realize they are only limited by their imaginations,” says Buchman.
Gogo CEO Thorne reiterates that passenger connectivity is still driving the market, although he also sees potential in other areas. “We think there will be a lot of connected aircraft applications developed over the next few years that will demand access to real-time data on a large scale, so we expect more demand from the operations side of the airlines in the future,” he says.
Although passenger connectivity is rapidly improving in terms of speed, cost and coverage, IFC still has plenty of room to evolve. Perhaps the most immediate goal is to hook up more single-aisle aircraft. U.S. carriers have led in this respect, and European majors such as International
Airlines Group and Lufthansa are also implementing high-speed Wi-Fi on short- to medium-haul routes. Asia still offers a large untapped market, however. “China and India are a little behind because of regulatory and business-model issues, but we expect those to get resolved in the not-too-distant future,” says Thorne.
As connectivity becomes ubiquitous, cybersecurity will become a pressing concern, as Huber notes: “Avoiding any mixability between crew and passenger data is vital and must be considered at the very early stages in the design of our systems.”
Satellite providers are responding to IFC growth with plans for more launches, usually with satellites of incrementally increasing capacity and capability. Nonetheless, even the fastest satellites cannot overcome the latency time it takes to transmit signals to orbit and back. For the passenger, this translates to roughly a 0.50-sec. gap before a webpage loads, unless the aircraft is using closer ground-based relays, in which case the latency is almost eliminated. In the future, constellations of new low-Earth-orbit satellites could close the latency gap between ground and orbital systems while also further lowering bandwidth costs.
On the avionics side, electronically steered array (ESA) antennas promise several advantages over current systems, although the technology is still maturing. Potentially available as a flat panel with no moving parts, ESA antennas should be easier to install and maintain while offering similar or superior performance to current technology. In part, this is because they can link to different satellites’ spot beams simultaneously.
Most industry observers expect software advances to keep pace with hardware improvements as a broader array of connectivity applications becomes viable for airlines. “Once the majority of aircraft are connected to Mother Earth, the connectivity work will shift to making use of the data pipeline by connecting further aircraft systems to the data pipeline and allowing further use cases for the crew,” says Bucher.
Nonetheless, real-time predictive maintenance still awaits its “killer app”—one that will make connectivity a must-have from a fleet operations perspective. Even so, growing demand from the passenger side plus cheaper bandwidth mean that most airlines may have IFC by the time OEMs and MRO companies figure out what to do with the mushrooming quantities of data coming from engine, APU and other component sensors.