Passengers and crew expect the same high standard of connectivity when airborne as in their office or at home.

The well-connected aircraft

Principals have long prized full internet connectivity for cabin Wi-Fi systems. Now engineers are reaping the benefits too. Words: Mike Stones

The well-connected aircraft

Principals have long prized full internet connectivity for cabin Wi-Fi systems. Now engineers are reaping the benefits too. Words: Mike Stones

Passengers and crew expect the same high standard of connectivity when airborne as in their office or at home.

“It’s not a decision to take lightly because it’s not a decision you can undo very easily.”

BRACE YOURSELF FOR an alphabet soup of jargon. There’s a bewildering array of acronyms when talk turns to onboard internet connectivity: from Ka to Ku and from GEO to MEO – and not forgetting LEO. Much of this can prove a distraction to making informed connectivity choices, warns Kai Tang, Senior Vice President Business and General Aviation at Inmarsat Aviation.

After 20 years working in satellite communications, including service with the US Navy, he believes technical jargon can be used to disguise clever marketing messages. “To borrow some language from my past US Navy life, your mission is not connectivity,” Tang told delegates at Corporate Jet Investor’s recent online conference CJI Global 2020. “It should just work; you shouldn’t have to think about it. Our job is to be invisible.” Unlike service providers, he added. They should delight customers with their resources, tools and applications.

Making informed choices, was critical. “It’s easy to get caught up in jargon and superficially simple number-based comparisons of products without truly understanding the value and ultimately losing sight of why it even matters to you,” he said. “Don’t let the trendy flavour of the day distract you from what matters most to you – particularly for something as important as your on-board Wi-Fi service provider. It’s not a decision to take lightly because it’s not a decision you can undo very easily.”

Let’s start with cabin Wi-Fi before moving on to look at how connectivity is beginning to contribute to predictive and preventative maintenance and even efficient and safe aircraft operations.

For many, failures in cabin Wi-Fi have become aircraft-on-ground (AoG) events. It is that critical. Business jets have even been known to formulate flightpaths around areas of the strongest connectivity. Busy business executives specifically demand the same standard of connectivity when airborne as in their offices, says James Person, senior director Global Business Development for Viasat. “With business aviation, what both the passengers and the crew are expecting is the same high-level of connectivity when they fly as they have in their office or at home on the ground.”

Most internet use is limited currently to checking emails or browsing the web. But, measured by the amount of data used, video is becoming the main driving factor – particularly as business has come to rely on Zoom meetings since the advent of Covid-19. “There's video conference calling and entertainment. So, people are streaming film, YouTube videos and other things,” explains Person. “That's what drives the volume of the data. But what most people spend their time doing is either email or web browsing.”

Delivering cabin connectivity to the internet relies on two main systems: a satellite connection or an Air-to-Ground (ATG) connection. The ATG system is used widely by in-flight broadband internet service provider Gogo in the US, although it does offer satellite connectivity as well. The ATG system connects the aircraft to the terrestrial cell phone system. This limits the speed of the connection to 4G speeds, but it also relies on cell phone towers to receive a signal. Unfortunately, due to the limitations of cell phone signals, the maximum distance a signal can travel is around 45 miles, so the ATG system relies on having a lot of towers in place. Thanks to Gogo this is true in the US. Although it is coming to Europe, other users need satellite systems.

Improved connectivity means a wealth of data on in-flight engine performance and flight operations are becoming increasingly available.

An aircraft antenna detects a signal from a satellite, feeds it into a box in the aircraft cabin, to which passengers connect in the same way they connect to their home Wi-Fi systems. There are two main frequency bands used in satellite communications, Ka-band and Ku-band. Ka-band uses a higher frequency band than Ku, which in theory, makes Ka-band connections faster.

Then, there is the connectivity providers’ decision about which satellite company to use. The number of satellites needed for global coverage depends on the satellite’s height or orbit. The three main orbits are: Low Earth Orbit (LEO), Middle Earth Orbit (MEO), and GEO – positioned much higher above the earth. This is split into two different categories: Geostationary, where the satellite stays in a fixed position as the earth rotates below it, and Geosynchronous, which holds a fixed position on the earth and rotates with the earth’s rotation.

Both systems have advantages and disadvantages. The lower a satellite’s orbit, the less time it takes for a signal to be received on the aircraft. This, in turn, means there is less chance that the signal will degrade on its journey. But placing satellites in low orbit means their coverage is restricted, needing many satellites to provide global coverage. For example, satellite communications firm Iridium requires 66 satellites in low earth orbit to provide global coverage.

Far fewer satellites are needed when stationed in GEO orbit. Viasat, one of the main connectivity providers, has just three, although it plans to launch more.

One factor frustrating airborne internet connection is latency. This is the time taken for the signal to bounce between the aircraft, the satellite and the ground. Satellite companies are focusing on fixing the problem, as well as adding more capacity, according to Michael Skou Christensen, Vice President, at Satcom Direct.

More satellites are being sent into space to remedy the capacity problem. “We'll see more capacity sent into space than ever before. There will be a benefit to all the customers.”

That includes buyers of pre-owned aircraft. Jeff Dorrough, Vice President of Asset Management for Mente Group, explains: “Everybody has to have it [on board connectivity]. It's a very, very important decision in a very, very important system to be included or be available as part of a purchase decision,” he said. So important, sometimes brokers install Wi-Fi systems on an aircraft before offering it for sale, said Dorrough. Installing the right system could command a premium of up to $100,000.

But it’s not just cabin Wi-Fi systems that can benefit from high levels of connectivity. Increasingly, engine manufacturers and aircraft OEMs are beginning to harness the power of connectivity to aid predictive and preventative maintenance and even enhance flight efficiency and safety.

A graphic picture of how on-board connectivity can support predictive maintenance was painted by Steve McManus, GE Aviation, sales director General and Business Aviation. “Imagine taking off from Joburg with an aircraft that’s hot and heavy,” he told Corporate Jet Investor’s London 2020 conference earlier this year. “The pilots momentarily over temp the engine and they don’t see it. But when you are on a diagnostics programme – whether Rolls-Royce or GE – we are picking this up.”

The aircraft has six hours’ flight time to reach its destination and on arrival it may be grounded for an engine borescope test. “We can bring in teams to do the work on site or we can meet them with the departure records and give them fly-on limits when normally that aircraft would have been grounded,” he said.

So, the well-connected aircraft is also the well-monitored aircraft. And it’s not just engines that can benefit from eagle-eyed surveillance. John Peterson, Honeywell Aerospace’s director, Customer and Product Support, said: “Our ability to take data from a single aircraft – whether a Challenger 300 or a Gulfstream 550 – and bring it to the ground to serve up insights is easy stuff. So, we might say: Did you know you had a hard landing in Hong Kong – maybe you should talk to the pilot about that.”

McManus outlined the scale of the oversight possible. “You can do a 3-D overlay of a flight and know the throttle movements. You can know where they [the pilots] busted an airspace [prohibition], where they landed on the runway, whether it was a hard landing, the speed they came in at, whether the pilots put the flaps down at 250 knots. You can overlay that entire programme today virtually on every flight.”

Improved connectivity offers a key opportunity for private aviation, according to James Hardie, Collins Aerospace, head of Regional Marketing, EMEA, Information Management Services, “It’s an opportunity for business aviation to follow into a connected ecosystem where you’re aggregating data into a shared or anonymous system. There, you can gain insights to improve efficiencies and find ways to do things better.”

Shuaib Shahid, Gogo Business Aviation, Manager Service Sales, highlighted Airbus’s Skywise system, which offers a data ecosystem to which anyone can connect. The open data platform provides insights from the large amounts of data that were previously locked in corporate and functional silos.

Person, at Viasat, believes business aviation could learn from airlines on connectivity. “For our airline customers, we have sponsors like Amazon Music on American Airlines or Amazon Prime on Jet Blue, which underwrite the cost of connectivity for passengers in the back.

“A very similar thing could happen here [in business aviation]. That big [connectivity] pipe that’s going to the guy in the back of the aircraft can be used to transmit data that benefits the engine manufacturer because they now get the data before they have an anomaly on the aircraft that could lead to damage on the engine. That could be a way to offset the cost of the data for the person in the back of the aircraft.”

Tang, at Inmarsat, says: “We love to talk about speed, satellites, orbits, mega-satellites and flat antennas. These topics are largely distractions from your ultimate requirement: Connectivity – be it safety or Wi-Fi – that is consistent and reliable; whenever and wherever you are.”

Satellite solutions: The three main orbits are: Low Earth Orbit (LEO), Middle Earth Orbit (MEO) and GEO – stationed much higher above the earth.

Satellite solutions: The three main orbits are: Low Earth Orbit (LEO), Middle Earth Orbit (MEO) and GEO – stationed much higher above the earth.

Mike Stones, Group Editor, Corporate Jet Investor

Mike Stones, Group Editor, Corporate Jet Investor