WI-FI stamp on Delta Air Lines Delta Air Lines
Delta Air Lines was a founding member of the Seamless Air Alliance, which is seeking to improve inflight connectivity through collaboration.

Cheaper, Faster, Better Inflight Connectivity: Coming To You

The Seamless Air Alliance hopes to standardize inflight connectivity equipment, which would have many benefits—including easier retrofits.

Printed headline: Seamless Transition

A little more than one year after launching with a promise to vastly improve the inflight connectivity (IFC) experience through industry-wide collaboration, the Seamless Air Alliance has signed up 23 members and is preparing for its first technology demonstration later in 2019.

The alliance—jointly founded by Airbus, Airtel, Delta Air Lines, OneWeb and Sprint—believes that standardization of IFC equipment will reduce installation and maintenance costs and drive down the cost of bandwidth.

Its aim is to develop standards that not only cut the cost burden for airlines but also enable passengers to seamlessly connect to the internet using their own devices in much the same way as they do on the ground. Working together to provide cheaper, hassle-free, “home-quality” inflight broadband, the group argues, will expand use by airline passengers and increase revenues for all stakeholders.

“The more capacity you provide and the easier it is to access, the more people will use it. The resulting revenues from this higher uptake will be shared across the whole ecosystem so that everybody benefits,” the alliance states in a white paper published last year.

Beyond the original founders, members now include Air France-KLM, Aeromexico, Brazil’s GOL, Etihad Airways, Collins Aerospace, Inmarsat, Intelsat, Panasonic Avionics, SITAOnAir, Nokia, Astronics, Comtech, Cyient, iDirect, Latecoere, Adaptive Channel, GlobalReach Technology and Safran.

“The passenger experience with inflight connectivity remains one of the great technology challenges. From Day 1, we have been determined to deliver on our mission to bring industries and technologies together to make the inflight internet experience simple to access and a delight to use,” Seamless Air Alliance Chief Executive Jack Mandala said in February, on announcing its latest members.

“I have been tremendously encouraged by the enthusiastic and committed response we have seen, and the widening areas of expertise we can call upon, as more and more companies and organizations continue to join us,” he added.

Etihad’s membership was significant, Mandala tells Inside MRO, because unlike other airline members it is not part of a global airline alliance or closely aligned with a carrier that is. “Etihad is truly coming in from a perspective of ‘Let’s do this for the common good,’” he says.

The Seamless Air Alliance has published the first version of its initial specifications document, covering topics such as regulatory constraints, network architecture and roles, says Mandala. This information will be used by three working groups within the alliance—technical, operational and value chain—as they draft further specifications.

A research laboratory is now “up and running” at a facility owned by mobile operator and founding member Sprint, and the alliance “hope[s] to do a public demonstration later this year,” he says.

Details about what will be demonstrated and how have not been released, but the CEO says that “a number of companies” within the alliance have indicated their willingness to participate, and “we’re pulling it all together now.” The demonstration is expected to take place in the second half of this year.

One of the key aims of the Seamless Air Alliance is to develop standards that will lead to greater commonality of IFC equipment, which currently varies widely between providers. While standardization could help to increase the number of IFC systems offered as linefit options by original equipment manufacturers, it could also simplify things for the retrofit market by making it cheaper and easier to switch one system for another.

“Commonality needs to be the cornerstone. It drives costs down and makes things simpler for airlines,” says Mandala, who describes the current situation—in which airlines often have different solutions for different aircraft types—as “a terrible mess.” He adds: “Standardization creates economies of scale, and it provides choice, so commonality is a big thing we’re after.”

Stephane Bronoff, connectivity enterprise architect at Airbus and chair of the Seamless Air Alliance’s value chain working group, believes the IFC market can learn a lot from the standardization that already has taken place in the mobile telecommunications industry on the ground. This has enabled consumers to acquire the latest mobile technology with the knowledge that any new devices they purchase will still be compatible with their existing network service providers.

“It’s interesting what has happened on the ground, and the same can happen on aircraft. . . . A lot [of standardization] has been done on the ground, so we want to reuse that and not reinvent the wheel,” says Bronoff.

The alliance hopes that airline passengers will eventually be able to switch on their own devices in the air and connect to the internet—and further into the future, access 5G services—without the need for complicated login procedures or paywalls.

“There is no question about the value of standardization,” says Bronoff, adding that there is a “necessity for airlines to have more flexibility.”

“Our vision is to go away from too many vertically integrated solutions. At some point for all OEMs, aircraft will come off the [production] line with standard equipment for IFE [inflight entertainment] and networks for the cabin,” he notes.

A white paper commissioned by the Seamless Air Alliance to examine the economics of inflight connectivity found that advantages of standardization in terms of MRO include reduced labor costs during the installation process and reduced revenue losses when aircraft are out of service.

“Inflight connectivity requires the installation of a broadband radio, antenna, radome, adapter plate, lugs, fittings, bulkhead penetrations, a wiring harness and several line-replaceable units,” says the paper. “Building or accommodating variation generally drives higher cost. It is preferable to make every installation equivalent using similarity, rather than discovery or invention.”

The document adds that standard provisions and interfaces can result in efficiencies by allowing faster installation and repair, because line-replaceable units can be switched “simply and quickly.”

“In aviation, changing anything costs a lot,” states the alliance white paper. “Integration of connectivity products includes suppliers of airplanes and airplane radios, Wi-Fi and IFE. Every airline is faced with integrating a unique combination of equipment and suppliers with their own special operations and requirements. Standard delineations between parties allows for simpler integration and more sophisticated features.”

Standardization can also increase the availability of spare parts, argues the paper: “Using the same parts and interfaces across multiple programs gives rise to economies of scale. Larger development pools mean greater development capacity. Larger spares pools mean parts are most likely to be available.”

The idea of interoperability in the area of inflight connectivity has been gaining traction as developments in antenna and satellite technology have progressed. Antenna manufacturers are building dual-beam systems that can operate seamlessly with the geostationary-orbit (GEO) satellites operated by companies such as Inmarsat (a Seamless Air Alliance member) and ViaSat (not yet a member), as well as non-GEO satellites such as the low-Earth-orbit constellations being developed by founding alliance member OneWeb.

Astronics AeroSat, which is working with electronically steered antenna (ESA) developer Phasor to produce dual-beam ESA-based aeronautical terminals, is a member of the Seamless Air Alliance, as is Collins Aerospace, which is also developing an ESA antenna.

This new generation of antennas—which also are touted as smaller, lighter and easier to install and maintain than their mechanically steered counterparts—will “be able to connect with more than one service provider” and represent “a step toward commonality,” says Mandala.

Mandala’s ambition is for “everyone to join” the alliance, to ensure it has the broadest scale possible to achieve its aims. He says “a couple of members have joined” the list of publicly revealed participants, and the alliance is “talking regularly” to companies that have yet to join.

“I think we can get to a complete first version of the standard within a year,” says Mandala, although “getting [the standard] out into the field will take more like two or three years.”

The alliance will follow a “step-by-step process,” says Bronoff, and once it has tackled “the low-hanging fruit around Wi-Fi,” it will move toward preparations for enabling people to use 5G devices on board aircraft.

“Passengers will start to carry 5G devices.  . . .We’ve had a lot of interest in implementing 5G architecture,” says Bronoff, adding that “our members do not wait and are already moving in that direction.”

The white paper commissioned by the alliance predicts that change is imminent in the inflight connectivity market. “Airlines have struggled with the high cost of equipping planes, poor performance and lower net promoter scores. Current inflight connectivity can be a brand-damaging event. However, the tides are turning,” it states. “The next wave of performance enhancements from better antennas, modems and satellite systems is just around the corner.” 

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