[Avionics Today 10-27-2014] Five years ago, aircraft cabin connectivity was considered a luxury for commercial and private air transportation providers. Today, in the business aviation world, connectivity is not only an expectation, but also a crucial part of the decision-making process when considering what company or aircraft a traveler decides to use.
The interior cockpit of a Wheels Up King Air 350i. Photo: Wheels Up.
New York-based private aviation aircraft provider Wheels Up is quickly expanding its presence within the business aviation market with a service offering that only charges members for the time they occupy an aircraft — with no fuel fees or costs for repositioning aircraft. The business model is achieved through partnerships with industry players such as Jet Aviation, JetSuite, Heliflite and VistaJet. During the 2014 National Business Aviation Association (NBAA) convention and exhibition last week, Wheels Up CEO Kenny Dichter told Avionics Magazine that In-Flight Connectivity (IFC) is one of the top aspects of his business.
"I will tell you this, I have now 15 years experience in private aviation [and] connectivity has never ever been more important in the sales process than it is today," said Dichter. "We ordered 105 King Air 350is from Beechcraft, which is now part of Textron Aviation. Every one of the 105 will be equipped with Wi-Fi and it is critical to our Wheels Up members experience — they demand it."
The King Air 350i, equipped with Rockwell Collins Pro Line 21 avionics, is also suited for domestic business aviation flight operators. According to Dichter, most charter and fractional ownership flights carry two to three passengers and average about two hours in duration. Turboprop King Air 350is can be configured to carry up to nine passengers and its short-field performance increases the number of General Aviation airports that the aircraft can access as well.
In terms of cabin IFC, the Wheels Up 350is are equipped with the Gogo Biz ATG 5000 system.
"In private aviation today, as it relates to business folks and families, connectivity is one of the top three or four things that they're asking about. I think it’s imperative that one has to deliver that type of service in the air," said Dichter. "We're with Gogo In-flight, and the service has been impeccable, member feedback has been terrific."
The Wheels Up founder said that connectivity also goes beyond cabin connectivity and holds importance for the flight operations side of the business as well.
"On the flight operations side for our pilots and maintenance people, it’s also important. The bonus is that connectivity for the members, it helps us with scheduling, it helps us with communications, maintenance, real time issues can get worked out. Whereas before it wasn't the case," said Dichter.
There were plenty of examples of new innovations for using connectivity to support business aviation operators and service providers as well at the annual NBAA convention. Companies known for their core avionics manufacturing products rolled out new innovations incorporating the iPad for the flight information services side of their business.
For example, Honeywell showcased some new uses of connectivity for its MyGDC iPad flight planning application. Rockwell Collins also displayed new capabilities involving the iPad for business aviation pilots with its recently acquired ARINC Direct air-to-ground connectivity and flight planning company, which has been integrated into its Information Management Services (IMS) division. Both Honeywell and Rockwell Collins are looking to increase the capabilities of their flight support services businesses, which are the business aviation equivalent to the in-house flight dispatch services used by most commercial airlines.
By the end of the year, Dichter said Wheels Up will have a total of 27 King Air 350is and 10 Cessna Citation XL/XLS jets. Going forward, he's looking to incorporate in-flight calling into the Wheels Up aircraft fleet.
"The new thing they're talking about is using the cell phone, and the ability to make cell phone calls in flight, and we're going to be right there when that comes online. And when we have the opportunity to put that in fleet wide, we're going to do that," said Dichter, adding that the company wants to ensure that making in-flight calls does not interfere with the aircraft's "critical avionics systems."
As Wheels Up looks to expand its operation to Europe in 2015, the chief executive says IFC will be just as important and that the European fleet will feature "the same connectivity that we have here in North America."