Connectivity Fuels Flying Hospital

By Woodrow Bellamy III  | December 9, 2014
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[Avionics Today 12-09-2014] In an effort to assist with air transportation of aid workers and patients infected by the recent outbreak of the Ebola virus, Lufthansa has donated one of its aircraft, originally scheduled for retirement, to the German Foreign Office. With onboard communications provided by Panasonic Avionics, the three entities — Lufthansa, Panasonic Avionics and the German Foreign Office — are now using a reconfigured Airbus A340-300 aircraft to fly aid workers and patients to Germany for treatment of the disease. 
German Foreign Minister Frank‑Walter Steinmeier and Health Minister Hermann Gröhe inside the reconfigured Airbus A340-300. Photo: Photothek/Gottschalk.
According to the German Foreign Office, work to convert the former passenger jet into an airborne hospital was carried out in late November in close cooperation with the Robert Koch Institute, Germany’s federal institute for infectious and non-communicable diseases. Seats and luggage compartments have been replaced with a number of airlocks and a hermetically sealed isolation tent, allowing patients to be transported and treated with subdued risk of infecting aid workers on board. The German government has leased the aircraft from Lufthansa for an initial period of six months. 
“This is probably the only Lufthansa plane that we hope will never or only very rarely need to be deployed,” German Foreign Minister Frank‑Walter Steinmeier said during a press conference announcing the new operation at Berlin Tegel airport. 
To aid in the relief efforts, Panasonic Avionics is providing the latest generation of its eXConnect system for the A340, allowing the on-board crew and medical staff to access Wi-Fi Internet and email service for air-to-ground communications during emergency flights. Lufthansa was actually Panasonic’s first air transport exConnect customer, David Bruner, executive vice president of global communications services at Panasonic, told Avionics Magazine. The reconfigured A340 was also one of the first to be equipped with the first generation version of the exConnect system, and is now being used for a larger purpose. 
“They do need some help here when they’re flying patients in and out of these locations where they would need special communications from the aircraft,” said Bruner. “We’re working with them to make sure they have enough bandwidth, and they can perform all the services that they want to onboard the plane. Really, our contribution to this humanitarian effort is just a great story in terms of how to take this asset that might have otherwise been retired and now it’s actually being used for a very cool purpose.”
Flights with the converted A340 will be operated by volunteer pilots and flight attendants and will be made available for any country that needs assistance transporting Ebola patients. Lufthansa said more than 700 pilots and flight attendants have volunteered to work as crew aboard the flying hospital. Inside the specially designed airtight cabin tent, an Ebola patient can effectively receive treatment under the same conditions as an intensive care unit at a hospital. With Panasonic providing the connectivity, the crew can stay in constant contact with ground-based personnel to provide updates on the patient’s conditions allowing hospitals to immediately be prepared for the patient’s condition when they arrive. 
According to Bruner, the crew will also be able to perform in-flight calling if necessary, a capability that he said is built into the exConnect system. The Panasonic executive said the use of the system for this operation is just one example of how operators are starting to expand the use of aircraft connectivity well beyond cabin Wi-Fi usage for passengers. 

“Today it’s seen as mainly passenger Wi-Fi but that’s really just the beginning. Once airlines start to really understand the value of this to access their own IP systems while the aircraft is airborne, now you’ve got something really valuable,” Bruner added. 

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