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Friday, April 1, 2016

Middle East Airlines Invest to Gain a Step Ahead

Whether investing in new connectivity or fleet upgrades, airlines in the Middle East continue to invest aggressively in state-of-the-art technologies as they look to improve overall efficiency, as well as provide a better customer experience. Here, we look at some of those recent investments.

By Mark Holmes

Etihad Airways
Photo: Etihad Airways

When it comes to investing in new technologies, avionics and connectivity, airlines in the Middle East are some of the most ambitious around. Airlines such as Emirates, flydubai and Saudia set the standard when it comes these investments. In a magazine exclusive, Avionics speaks to a number of top executives at some of the major airlines in the region regarding the commercial carriers’ latest investments.

Dubai-based Emirates continues to be one of the most aggressive airlines when it comes to investing in new avionics capabilities. In the last five years alone, the airline’s passenger numbers have grown from 27.5 million to 49.3 million travellers per year, according to Emirates, and as a response the company has an ambitious fleet-expansion plan in place. It plans to add state-of-the-art aircraft and equipment into its operation to cope with the huge jump in passenger traffic. Emirates will take delivery of 37 new aircraft over the next year alone including 21 A380s and 16 Boeing 777s. In terms of technology, Emirates will invest in aircraft systems that both meet and exceed the global aviation industry requirements and regulatory airspace mandates, which will enhance the safety of its passengers and aircraft, including aircraft tracking, according to Iain Lachlan, divisional senior vice president of engineering at Emirates. He told Avionics Magazine the airline is committed to providing the best passenger connectivity and In-Flight Entertainment (IFE) systems for its customers through continued implementation and developments.

Speaking to what he sees as the key to boosting overall efficiency in operations, Lachlan admits fuel efficiency may not be the highest priority, given current and projected fuel prices. However, he says the enhancements in Communications, Navigation and Surveillance (CNS) equipment are the key enablers to efficient use of airspace, and optimization of available routes, which reduce flight times and decrease fuel burn. “Emirates will continue to work at meeting — and in the majority of cases exceeding — the industry mandate for [Automatic Dependent Surveillance-Broadcast] ADS-B Out for [the European Aviation Safety Agency] EASA and FAA. This technology is expected to provide improved operational flexibility, increase air space capacity and enhance safety,” Lachlan says. “In the future, Emirates will critically analyze the ADS-B In feature for future requirements in addition to working on ensuring compliance to [Future Air Navigation System] FANS; the communication with FANS provides flight level optimization, which is also intended to improve fuel efficiency.”

Emirates has also been effectively implementing the Controller-Pilot Data Link Communications (CPDLC), through which air traffic controllers can communicate with pilots over a datalink system. Lachlan says the airline has also been looking at enhancements datalink capabilities and further improvements to FANS, ADS-B and satcom systems that can provide global coverage.

As its fleet becomes more connected and digital, Emirates is pursuing effective use of connectivity for end-to-end operations. Lachlan says, “This encompasses reducing the use of paper and physical media, replacing them with wireless transfers to and from aircraft. Emirates is continuously looking at making use of technology on ground, equipping engineers and technicians with connected devices and custom-made applications, which enhances the quality of work, accessing real-time data and applications, which also reduces the risk of errors and reworks.”

Emirates’ Electronic Flight Bag (EFB) strategy is to “go paperless,” according to Lachlan. The airline is working to incorporate the use of the latest IT technology with Personal Electronic Devices (PEDs), such as laptops and tablets. Emirates is strategizing to develop custom applications, which will enhance flight deck and ground support efficiency, as well as workload, while also enabling real-time data along with accessibility to core systems and applications, Lachlan says.

In terms of the technology challenges that lay ahead for the airline, Lachlan says flight tracking is taking center stage. “The drive to precisely know an aircraft’s position at all times under normal and distress conditions free of any interference is expected to lead to industry regulations, which Emirates is closely monitoring and evaluating how and what systems can achieve this,” he says. “Additional challenges envisioned are aircraft data security and a global connectivity road map.”

In 2015 flydubai began to invest heavily in its In-Flight Connectivity (IFC) strategy. The airline, established in 2008, one of the newest airlines in the Middle East, has partnered with Global Eagle Entertainment (GEE) to equip for Ku-band connectivity across its current fleet and next 11 Boeing 737-800 deliveries. It is now equipping its fleet with a broadband pipe, which will initially be used for passenger, crew and cabin systems connectivity. Daniel Kerrison, vice president of in-flight products at flydubai, says what excites the airline the most is that it “will be using this technology in the future for things we haven’t even thought of yet... With a Ku pipe to the aircraft, we are future-proofing the airline and best positioning ourselves to take advantage of new opportunities.”

flydubai expects to complete all IFC installations by the end of this year. Kerrison says connectivity is just one more choice the airline is giving its passengers, putting him or her in control of what they include in their journey and, therefore, in control of how much the trip costs each traveller. He says the airline is confident that the quality of its broadband product will represent great value. “We will offer several different pricing models for passengers to choose from, with price points varying depending on factors like the length of flight,” he says.

Unlike airlines such as JetBlue, flydubai will charge its customers for Wi-Fi services. “It is important to us that we are able to offer our customers a good quality connectivity service. While a small number of airlines have decided to offer Wi-Fi connectivity free to passengers, we recognize that a sensible fee to use the service will ensure that the network functions well, with plenty of bandwidth available for everyone who chooses to use it,” Kerrison says.

flydubai selected a Ku-band solution for its current fleet for a number of reasons, but is looking at Ka-band as well. “Today’s current Ku technology uses wide satellite beams, which next year will be complemented with HTS [High Throughput Satellite] beams. Ku-HTS will deliver a huge amount of bandwidth — much like Ka does. The combination of wide and spot beams offered by Ku technology means that broadcast services like live television and content loading are extremely economical,” Kerrison says. “That is not necessarily the case with Ka. Another advantage we value with Ku is that there are many Ku-satellite operators, which creates price competition and redundancy that does not exist with Ka technology today. These factors all contributed to our decision process for the current fleet. That said, we are currently evaluating connectivity solutions for our fleet of 75 Boeing 737 MAX-8 aircraft, the first of which delivers in August 2017. We are considering both Ka and Ku solutions as part of that process.”

Kerrison says the biggest advancement in connectivity the airline sees on the horizon is the introduction of Ku-HTS next year. “In terms of the in-flight experience, we believe that, more and more, the travelling public will come to expect connectivity in flight, and will expect it to consistently work well. Equipping our fleet with a system that gives customers across our network the choice of high quality in-flight connectivity is high priority for flydubai this year,” he says.

Another of the region’s major airlines, Saudia, is also investing aggressively in connectivity solutions.

The airline has been providing GSM and Wi-Fi on 12 Airbus A330s for more than four years. With a successful launch, the service expanded to linefit 14 Boeing 777-300ER aircraft. Recently, the airline has received eight IFC-equipped Boeing Dreamliners. “By combining the latest IFE system with the best global communications solutions, Saudia has transformed the entertainment experience. Our guests will enjoy in-flight entertainment content on the widest entertainment screens and remain simultaneously connected, surf the web, text and email. Our vision will be to continue providing the best-ever communication solution with ambitious plans to have 84 connected aircraft by the end of 2018,” says Fahad Al Jarboa, vice president of marketing and products at Saudia.

As with a number of airlines, Saudia is trying to figure out the best pricing models for Wi-Fi. It has adopted a number of initiatives to improve the up-take of the services. Last year, it started selling Wi-Fi packages through time-based plans rather than volume-based plans. This has had a positive impact in terms of passenger up-take of the service. Saudia has also become of the first airlines to develop a dedicated application to help first class and business class guests access Wi-Fi. “Saudia is seeing the rapid change in the in-flight connectivity markets and how it became a mandatory service to be presented for the passengers. Saudia is making a huge investment in the service by providing monthly offers to passengers and providing them with different options of payments and expanding the number of participating aircraft,” says Al Jarboa. However, despite its aggressive investments in connecting its aircraft, Al Jarboa says there is still much work to do. “Connectivity technologies are not developing as fast as they should be. We see the speeds not reaching the levels they are supposed to,” he says.

In terms of how a connected aircraft can make a difference in terms of operations, Al Jarboa says, “The connected aircraft will always help the airline receive health reports on the aircraft avionics systems, engine performance. Basically, the future is always open to utilize connectivity solutions to improve aircraft operations.”

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