Almost everyone takes an internet-connected device on flights these days. Passengers have, in the past, faced frustration because of connectivity problems. They have found bandwidth limited, especially when flying in certain areas. However, with continuous technology improvements and hundreds of new satellites planned to be released into orbit, there is substantial potential for boosting connectivity for devices on aircraft, says Justin Hobday, Partner at Carmichael Fisher. “This will help give airlines the bandwidth passengers will need in the future,” he says. The idea is that airlines will reach comfortable bandwidth levels for streaming data to apps such as Apple Music or Netflix. Generally, that’s a minimum of 3mbps (megabits per second).

As more satellites launch, this minimum looks increasingly viable. For example, Gogo now has onboard wifi solutions which can deliver more than 15Mpbs per passenger. It has Ku-band, an in-flight satellite solution for wifi technology, featuring agreements with SES and Intelsat to maximise coverage and bandwidth. However, it is also developing 2Ku with Ku-band antennas and has peak speeds of more than 100Mbps. Aeromexico is the first airline to commit to using it. In a recent demonstration, industry reporters saw the system streaming high-definition video. As the wifi technology advances, several airlines are already looking at removing the traditional seat-back entertainment systems from their aircraft. Hobday states that: “Streaming entertainment to the iPads people take on board can be a huge cost saving for airlines. “Seat-back entertainment systems are expensive items. They can cost millions of pounds to install in one aircraft alone. “Then there is the saving in fuel costs. Seat-back systems are heavy, meaning airlines must use more aircraft fuel to move them than smaller mobile devices used by passengers. “There is also the potential to redesign airliner cabins to maximise space once the seat-back systems are removed. “Perhaps the most persuasive argument relates to the technology itself. “Because of the lengthy engineering and safety processes seatback systems need to go through, they are often technologically obsolete by the time they are fitted. “Airlines are also deterred from updating them because of the cost.”

How is this technological advance being achieved?

The Stratolaunch is set to usher in this new era in aircraft connectivity. Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen, the driving force behind the Stratolaunch project, says the 238ft long and 50ft tall plane will be used to launch satellites into low Earth orbit. The six-engine reusable plane with a huge wingspan of 385ft will carry a payload of 550,000lbs. The aim is that it will take off from a runway, just like a normal plane, and release a vehicle bearing the satellite at the height flown by commercial airliners. Then, the vehicle’s rockets will boost the satellite into its orbit. Other satellite launch projects are in the pipeline from DARPA and Vector. Vector estimates it will have the capacity to launch 100 small satellites every year.

So, overall, the satellite capacity for aviation is set to increase greatly.

So, what exactly is capacity when it comes to satellites?

Capacity is a much-used word when it comes to aviation wifi. Sean Cordone, Gogo’s VP of Satellite Communications, says: “Capacity is a measure of how much data can be transferred through our satellite networks. Adding capacity is the term we use to describe the process of growing our networks, to ensure the high-quality user experience is consistently delivered as demand for data grows along with subscriber growth.” Mr Cordone says that satellite companies often measure capacity in terms of theoretical raw data available on any one given satellite. He adds: “You’ll often see satellite provider’s quote numbers like 100 Gbps of total capacity. These numbers are typically theoretical and sometimes include bandwidth reserved for remote home internet subscriptions. It also includes capacity in areas that serve no useful purpose for aviation. “It’s worth bearing in mind that most satellite companies serve many markets, so all the bandwidth is shared. “The total bandwidth calculations of certain satellites are also sometimes made using massive backyard satellite dishes, which greatly inflates the total capacity numbers. “To deliver performance, Gogo purchases capacity on satellites specifically to serve aviation and the unique areas around the world where planes fly. “What’s important for the in-flight connectivity market is that capacity to serve aviation. Still, capacity is a raw data measurement. You need a way to get that bandwidth to the seats in a usable way. “For that, we’ve developed innovative antenna designs and a highly specialised in-cabin network that includes a modem and wireless access points.”

What challenges will the airline industry face?

For companies currently making seat-back systems, there is a huge challenge of responding to the changing technology by diversifying into different areas. Mr Hobday says: “We’re already seeing some interesting mergers and acquisitions such as Rockwell Collins and B/E Aerospace, bringing technologies closer together. “Rockwell Collins specialises in aerospace electronics, including wireless video streaming systems and in-flight connectivity. B/E Aerospace is known for its cabin seating and lighting.

“It’s likely we’ll see more of these mergers in the coming years.” One of the key issues will be ensuring there are enough charging points for passengers’ devices, something Hobday says airlines are already focused upon. “Companies are established to deal specifically with this challenge. There is also the need to ensure that passengers’ devices are sufficiently secure for an aircraft. We have seen problems such as the recent spate of fires which sparked two product recalls, for example. “Another challenge for airlines will be ensuring senior managers have the right skills blend to drive the adoption of new technologies ahead of the competition. Hobday says: “Teams will need to be built which include people with the right technical skills and a strong understanding of the passenger experience.”

How are airlines adopting this technology?

Some are looking at losing the seat-back systems from aircraft on their short-haul flights while retaining them for their long-haul journeys. American Airlines has decided to remove the screens on their internal US flights, but retain them on international flights. For many airlines, the speed of the broadband options is important. Lufthansa has been trailing high-speed broadband options. It adopted JetWave receiving equipment from Honeywell and GX Aviation broadband, while AirAsia is set to follow.

The changes to technology were a hot topic for discussion at one of the world’s largest airline events, the Aircraft Interiors Expo in Long Beach, California. The event on September 26-28 had exhibitors including Aviointeriors S.p.A., Mirus Aircraft Seating, Global Eagle, Gogo Inc, W L Gore, and HAECO Cabin Solutions.

Hobday says: “Key industry decision-makers from across the world were in attendance. It was interesting to hear their thoughts about how quickly the new technology will be adopted and whether, eventually, the seat-back entertainment system will become a thing of the past or be retained in some aircraft as a luxury feature.”

By Justin Hobday, Partner

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Justin Hobday


Justin established Carmichael Fisher LLC and remains hands-on in his role leading many of the firm's key mandates.