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Sunday, September 1, 2013

Passenger Connections

Global airlines work to satisfy customer demands for always-on connectivity while operating the aircraft safely and profitably

By Marc Selinger

 

Delta Air Lines, which flies more than 800 domestic aircraft
equipped with Wi-Fi, plans to expand that connectivity to its
long-haul international fleet of more than 150 aircraft
by 2015.
The proliferation of personal electronic devices (PED) in recent years has created a community of consumers accustomed to 24/7 connectivity, including while in flight.

By one estimate, 80 percent of all airline passengers carry a smartphone, tablet or laptop. So when they settle into an airline seat, they increasingly expect that kind of connectivity to follow them so they can be entertained or get work done, especially on long flights.

“Customers are increasingly bringing their own devices with them on the aircraft,” said Jamie Perry, JetBlue’s director of product development. “That means that it is important that customers are provided with a low-cost, high-speed Internet connection to power their devices and to enable them to enjoy their devices as they would at home.”

Airlines and their equipment suppliers are taking advantage of recent advances in in-flight connectivity technology to accommodate this trend.

“The industry’s been trying to find an appropriate blend of technology and economics for some time, and I think we’re now starting to see the maturing of technology and the introduction of new economic models which will permit the step change in capability,” said Stuart Dunleavy, vice president and general manager of media and connectivity at Thales. “Connectivity is an enormous growth area for the future.”

Wireless

More and more airlines are adopting satellite and air-to-ground Wi-Fi technology that allows passengers to browse the Web and access e-mail accounts with their Internet-ready personal devices. Companies such as Gogo, Honeywell, Panasonic Avionics, Row 44, Thales and ViaSat have rolled out new products for commercial in-flight connectivity in recent years.

Delta Air Lines, which flies more than 800 domestic aircraft equipped with Wi-Fi, plans to expand that connectivity to its long-haul international fleet of more than 150 aircraft by 2015.

American Airlines is equipping its new Boeing 777-300ERs with Wi-Fi and will begin retrofitting its existing 777-200ERs with similar technology in 2014. American’s first 777-300ER entered service in January complete with Wi-Fi.

“In the last few years, we’ve seen a huge uptick in installing Wi-Fi systems for passenger connectivity on domestic airlines as well as international airlines,” said Kenny Kirchoff, a Boeing research and development engineer for 787 Dreamliner cabin systems. Wi-Fi connectivity is currently a retrofit option on the 787. “The airlines have kind of tested their markets and seen what their passengers are looking for, and a lot of them have found that they want some sort of Wi-Fi connectivity in the air. And as soon as airline A does it, then airline B wants to do it as well because they don’t want to be left behind.”

Airlines are seeking faster Wi-Fi so their passengers can access more bandwidth-demanding content, such as movies and live television. This year, Southwest Airlines passengers using iPhones, iPads and iPods, or most other Internet-ready personal devices will be able to access live TV and up to 75 on-demand shows on the airline’s more than 400 Wi-Fi-enabled aircraft via the DISH network.

Last year, Delta Air Lines announced plans to add on-demand entertainment options to its fleet of more than 950 two-class Delta and Delta Connection aircraft via the Gogo air-to-ground network. Passengers will be able to stream television and movie options to their laptop or tablet while in flight, and streamed content will be accessible for 24 hours after a flight and available for playback on the ground through the same device used onboard. All 800 of Delta’s two-class domestic aircraft will be equipped with this new on-demand technology by the end of 2013, the airline said.

This year, United Airlines introduced onboard satellite-based Wi-Fi, via Panasonic’s Ku-Band network, on the first of its international widebody aircraft. The aircraft, a Boeing 747, serves trans-Atlantic and trans-Pacific routes. Additionally, United has outfitted Ku-band satellite Wi-Fi on two Airbus 319s serving domestic routes. The company said it expects to complete installation of satellite-based Wi-Fi on 300 mainline aircraft by the end of this year.

JetBlue’s Fly-Fi, which will launch this fall, will be capable of delivering at least 12 megabits per second to each passenger. That’s enough capacity to watch DirecTV and use a personal electronic device at the same time the kind of multi-tasking that many consumers routinely do on the ground.

“Almost 50 percent of our customers say that the free DirecTV is very important to them when deciding to fly on JetBlue,” Perry told Avionics Magazine. “We expect to see a high degree of ‘double screening’ once Fly-Fi is live, with customers augmenting their TV viewing via a connected second device such as a tablet or a smart phone.“

LiveTV, a wholly owned subsidiary of JetBlue, is working with ViaSat to install Fly-Fi on JetBlue aircraft. JetBlue will be followed by United Airlines and Aer Lingus, said Mike Moeller, LiveTV’s vice president of sales and marketing.

At press time, efforts were underway to obtain FAA approval of a Fly-Fi-equipped prototype, Moeller said. Those efforts include flight testing an antenna that rotates under a radome atop the aircraft.

US Airways in July completed installation of Gogo Wi-Fi in-flight Internet service on its fleet of 270 Airbus A319, A320, A321 and Embraer 190 aircraft along with 58 Embraer 170 and 175 aircraft operated by Republic Airlines as US Airways Express. With the completion of installation, 90 percent of US Airways’ domestic flights now offer customers in-flight wireless access.

“Customer demand for in-flight Internet has remained strong and the expansion of Wi-Fi across our fleet allows US Airways to deliver a product that our customers, especially our most frequent fliers, now look for on-board,” said Andrew Nocella, US Airways’ senior vice president, Marketing and Planning.

Other recent connectivity agreements and contracts include:

➤ Air France and KLM Royal Dutch Airlines in July launched trial flights featuring in-flight Wi-Fi connectivity provided by Panasonic Avionics. The trial phase will last for the remainder of 2013, on two Boeing 777-300s, operating commercially to several long-haul destinations. According to Panasonic, the service will be distributed to passengers at an hourly rate, or for one fixed fee that covers the duration of the flight.

➤ Philippines national carrier Philippine Airlines signed an in-flight connectivity deal with OnAir, to launch GSM and Wi-Fi service later this year.

➤ Global Eagle Entertainment, the parent company of Row 44, signed a memorandum of understanding with China Telecom Satellite Communications Co. Ltd. to offer in-flight connectivity services in China.

➤ In its first quarterly report as a publicly traded company, Gogo saw lower profits in the second quarter, despite higher take rates for its service on U.S. flights. Its North American commercial aviation segment revenue increased to $49.8 million, a 37 percent increase over the year-earlier quarter. The in-flight connectivity provider’s take rate, which measures the percentage of fliers on Gogo-equipped aircraft using the service, increased to 5.9 percent, up from 5.3 percent during the second quarter 2012.

A passenger views a Samsung Galaxy Tablet that American
Airlines provides to premium-class passengers
on select flights.
In the report, Gogo said it had 470 aircraft backlog waiting to be equipped with service.

Avionics equipment manufacturers are responding to customer requests for this equipment. Thales’ Avant in-flight system currently provides data and limited e-mail. At press time, Thales planned to roll out its next generation of Avant this year with an unnamed major U.S. airline and then follow with international carriers. The new version will provide faster Internet access, high-data applications, major file transfers, videoconferencing and on-demand TV, including real-time sports, Dunleavy said.

Dunleavy said Thales’ migration to the Android operating system, which was designed mainly for touch-screen mobile devices, has allowed it to integrate hundreds of applications into Avant.

Gogo in May said it received a FCC license to provide Ku-band satellite high-speed connectivity to up to 1,000 aircraft flying domestic and international routes. The company also has an agreement to provide even faster Ka-Band satellite service when Inmarsat’s Global Xpress satellite service becomes available in 2015.

Many airlines see connectivity as a complementary service to traditional in-flight entertainment options, namely seat-back displays. For example, the in-seat monitors on American’s fleet of new 777-300ERs not only display games, movies, music and TV shows stored onboard but will also soon show gate connection information. The gate information is already being sent to the aircraft but traditionally has had to be read aloud by flight attendants. “You don’t have to have the 30-minute announcement of all of the different connecting gates,” said Brian Richardson, American’s manager of in-flight entertainment and connectivity. “It’s all right there.”

Regulatory Efforts

Passengers on U.S. airlines are currently told to turn off their PEDs for takeoffs and landings to prevent interference with an aircraft’s electronics. But an FAA-led government-industry group, or Aviation Rulemaking Committee, is studying whether that policy could be eased. The ARC is comprised of representatives from FAA, aircraft manufacturing companies, pilot and flight attendant groups, airlines and mobile technology experts. The committee began its work in January and plans to meet through September, after which it will report its recommendations to FAA.

“The FAA recognizes this is an area of intense consumer interest, so the agency has brought all the important stakeholders together to facilitate a discussion on this issue,” the agency wrote in a “fact sheet” on portable electronics. “The goal is to help air carriers and operators decide if they can allow more widespread use of electronic devices in today’s aircraft.”

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) prohibits passengers in the United States from using their cell phones in flight, citing concerns about potential interference with ground networks. But Boeing customers in Europe and the Middle East, where the rules are more lenient, are increasingly showing interest in that capability, Kirchoff told Avionics.

“We’re seeing more and more airlines coming in and asking for that kind of installation,” he said.

To enable in-flight phone usage, Boeing installs a pico cell that creates a network of mobile phones aboard the aircraft and prevents it from interfering with ground systems. As an extra safeguard, the network is operational only at 10,000 feet or above. A satellite communications link connects on-board phones to off-board phones.

“The important thing is that you’re able to capture all the phones on the airplane and communicate with them on the airplane so they don’t try to communicate with the ground network,” Kirchoff said.

Kirchoff could not predict when the United States might relax its cell phone ban, which the FCC put in place in 1991. FAA, which enforces the regulation, explains cell phones differ from most PEDs in that they send out signals strong enough to be received at long distances.

“I think it’s a money issue,” Kirchoff said. “There hasn’t been enough impetus or political motivation to get it off the books yet. I’m sure there are people who would like to be able to use phones on the airplane. I’m sure that there are airlines that may want to be able to do that, but I don’t know of any specifically.”

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