Business & GA, Connectivity

VistaJet Chief Operating Officer Talks COVID-19 and LuxStream Apps, Deployment Schedule

LuxStream, the new in-flight connectivity technology from Collins Aerospace and SES, is scheduled to be installed on up to 45 of the VistaJet in-service aircraft fleet in 2021, the company’s chief operating officer (COO) Nick Van der Meer said during a Connected Aviation Intelligence question and answer session hosted by Avionics International and sister publication Via Satellite last week.

Vista Global – the parent company of VistaJet and XO - became the launch customer for LuxStream in September 2019, bringing in-flight Internet speeds of up to 25 Mbps in the United States and 15Mbps globally via SES's managed Ku-band satellite network exclusively to business aviation operators. Now, the Malta-based operator has worked through COVID-19 related schedule delays on installments and is looking forward to rolling the service out to more aircraft in its fleet next year.

“Unfortunately, COVID set the schedule for deployment back quite a bit, our first aircraft was at a [maintenance, repair, and overhaul] MRO facility getting the prototype installed and they had all sorts of problems flying the right technicians in to complete some of the upgrades,” Van der Meer said. “We have eight aircraft currently fitted and flying with LuxStream and we’re looking to do about two per month moving forward. In the year 2021, we’re looking to install it on about 45 of our aircraft.”

2020 has been a year of progress and operational adjustments for VistaJet integrating the new service onboard its aircraft while also dealing with COVID-19 related regulatory, policy, and transmission-related concerns of passengers and regulators. The current VistaJet fleet includes 60 aircraft based in Malta with 29 total Global 6000s and the remaining spread across Challenger 850s, 605s, and 350s. In the U.S. they have a fleet of Global 5000s and eight Challenger 350s along with the XO fleet of Citation Xs and Challenger 300s.

This has also been a year of expansion, as they recently acquired Red Wing Aviation after XOJET Aviation purchased a controlling majority stake in Minnesota-based charter airline Red Wing Aviation that will bring 15 Citation V Ultras to the Vista Global fleet. VistaJet’s performance following the implementation of tighter cross-border travel policies by regulators in March and April is also reflective of how the business aviation segment has outperformed commercial airlines in passenger demand since that time period.

According to an Oct. 6 press release, VistaJet reported a “surge of 49 percent in corporate interest globally since the start of the pandemic.” On the operational side, there are new applications and workflows opening up as a result of the LuxStream deployment.

“We’ve linked the LuxStream technology to our back-end systems and linked it to further Collins systems like electronic flight folios, for example, where our crew are working purely off an iPad and will no longer use paper navigation logs. We also can access and download any data that you would regularly access from the quick access recorder (QAR).  Through the bespoke router we can pull down any of that data at any point at any time throughout the flight,” Van der Meer said.

Some of the information Van der Meer’s team regularly uses the LuxStream router to download data for include takeoff and landing times and the amount of fuel onboard or burned through certain phases of flight. “The iPads used by our pilots are connected via the router to the flight management system, so every time the pilot hits a certain waypoint they’re checking to see the exact amount of fuel they have, and checking to see if everything is working out and does everything look ok, and we’re getting all that data on the ground as well,” Van der Meer said.

According to the COO, a web portal provided by Collins Aerospace allows both VistaJet and their passengers to manage all of their billing and in-flight Internet data usage on a per-flight basis as well. While there is some noticeable difference between the 15 Mbps offered internationally versus the 25 Mbps offered inside the U.S., the executive said passengers do not see a major drop off in performance and are still able to stream and use bandwidth-intensive applications across multiple devices simultaneously in-flight.

He described one scenario involving a demonstration flight where a total of 10 devices including laptops, mobile phones, and tablets were all connected and performing either video conferencing calls or streaming videos and they were all able to successfully occur uninterrupted.

Comments made by van der Meer confirmed the download speeds observed by Astronics Corp. during an evaluation of its Ku-band tail-mounted antenna technology to support the Collins Aerospace KuSAT-2000 SATCOM terminal’s ability to support the 25/15 Mbps split between the U.S. and international airspace that occurred earlier this year. During that evaluation Astronics’ team transferred 12 gigabytes of data, testing up to seven devices that were simultaneously streaming HD video as well as voice, video calls, and other communications platforms.

"Your meetings can continue without worrying about will we have a proper internet connection in the sky. You just set the video calls and continue as per your normal schedule or just relax and watch a movie if you choose," Van der Meer said.

As VistaJet continues to roll LuxStream out on more aircraft, the operation will continue to deal with the new normal flight operational environment and conditions imposed by the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic as well. In July, the company took steps to improve its ability to support in-flight medical emergencies, by adding the Tempus IC2 device to its aircraft fleet. Tempus IC2 provides clinical data, images, real-time voice and video, and a connection to MedAire's ground-based 24/7 team of medical experts.

Operationally, VistaJet has dedicated a special team to monitoring regulatory and policy-related COVID-19 updates and has been successfully managing the situation for the most part.

"It’s tough. Countries are updating their regulations constantly. You have trips that are booked, and 24 hours before the trip departs a new regulation comes into play in some cases. We put a special team in place constantly monitoring all of the various changes that are out there," Van der Meer said. "Our passengers have been very flexible, they want to be as informed as possible before they take off so that they’re not surprised on the other end."

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