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Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Carriers Increase Connectivity for Data, Entertainment Demand

Chelsea Bryan

[Avionics Today April 15, 2014] Airlines executives and engineers alike convened together at AMC/AEEC Toronto on the topic of in-flight connectivity yesterday, where data and entertainment demand emerged as priorities for airlines. Mark Sorensen, Delta Air Lines senior principal engineer, cabin avionics engineering said that Delta Air Lines has pursued connectivity with Gogo Ka-band via Intelsat, and now has the most connectivity-equipped fleet of any airline, with every Delta aircraft scheduled to be connected within the next 18 months.

“The flight attendants didn’t really want to be telling passengers to put away their devices all the time,” he said, referring to celebrity incidents resulting in bad press for the airline. But the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) committee’s allowance of the use of Personal Electronic Devices (PED) earlier this year changed that, and, according to Sorensen, that inspired new demand for passengers, which pushed Delta to drive connectivity further.

“Once you’ve got PEDs gate-to-gate, the passengers want to stay connected gate-to-gate,” said Sorensen. The flight crew as well wanted Wi-Fi for current weather info, he said, and Delta is already using connectivity to perform credit card checks on cabin sales.

But passengers expect more, said Sorensen, and it creates a problem. “Our passengers expect to have Wi-Fi on the airplane and they can get a little testy if it’s not available.”

Sorensen said that connectivity interruptions caused by satellite service switches can mean server interruptions for up to five minutes, and that faster, more accurate antennas and antenna steering, and systems built to ARINC 791 standards are needed to help airlines maintain connection and keep data and maintenance costs down. Even a 0.1 lag in antenna accuracy can create latency and increase data costs sharply. “It’s not as simple as some of the suppliers think,” said Sorensen.

“I can’t think of any other installation that has challenged the airlines more,” Sorensen said of Ku- and Ka-band installs, adding that he is looking forward to much awaited line fit systems like Inmarsat and Honeywell have begun work on for GX Aviation. Sorensen said he hopes more providers will meet ARINC 791 standards and that, “with all the work the subcommittee has done, that Boeing will be delivering ARINC 791 line fit deliveries.”

FedEx, though free of any In-flight Entertainment and Connectivity (IFE&C) challenges, has experienced its own challenges such as permissions and coordination on data use and gaining access for all operations, said Ted McFann, manager, avionics data management and communications at FedEx Express. Though not an airline, Fedex operates under 14 CFR 121 standards and has succeeded in connecting the aircraft for Electronic Flight Bag (EFB) flight plan use and data delivery. “FedEx has always been all about the transmittal of data,” said McFann.

FedEx now has a long-term goal of building software to enable connectivity applications in flight and keeping air records for auto send-back. But as more data is enabled, company prerogatives are at odds, said McFann: FedEx operations want to put more data online, security wants less data online, and IT can’t keep up, he said. FedEx has also faced life cycle and incompatibility issues, but McFann said FedEx remains ambitious to continue leveraging connectivity for higher-level data use.

American Airlines Lead Avionics Engineer Maurice Ingle said use of Teledyne Controls’ Wireless GroundLink Comm+ has likewise enabled auto data download and flight review capabilities to the Boeing 777s and Airbus A319s and A321s in the fleet. Flight Operations Quality Assurance (FOQA) data on 75 percent of the feet as part of American Airlines’ safety initiative has allowed the carrier to utilize run its maintenance and repair operations more efficiently.

None of the airlines however, have been able to integrate their collected flight and ground operations data into one system for comprehensive analysis, like Air Canada has. While American Airlines has some maintenance data analysis capability, said Ingle, that capability remains largely untapped.

Meanwhile, American Airlines is preparing for Boeing and Airbus aircraft deliveries in November by engaging service providers with six to nine months of lead time, and determining coverage requirements on gates and hangar areas.

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