Aug. 17, 2015

The world is becoming more interconnected by the second as the rapid advancement in “connectivity” technologies escalates at a dizzying pace. Smartphones, tablets and a host of other electronic devices for personal and business use are now commonplace. As a result, business travelers today expect to be connected to the office, clients, employees and their families and friends 24/7 no matter where they are, even if it’s from 40,000 feet in the air.

Nowhere is the impact of this trend more evident than in the cockpits and cabins of today’s business aircraft. Gone are the days when in-flight Internet access, video streaming and text-and-talk services were futuristic “blue sky” notions of what might be possible someday.

The future has arrived with a bang, and the business aviation industry’s many providers of satellite and ground-based connectivity equipment, devices and services for both the cabin and crew are ramping up in a big way to keep up with the exploding demand.

“There definitely has been a shift to broadband being required on board an aircraft,” said Scott Hamilton, chief strategy officer of Satcom Direct. “Any new aircraft coming out of an OEM is being equipped with some sort of broadband capability. And, aircraft buyers, one of the first things they do if they’re buying an aircraft that is not equipped, is to put some sort of broadband capability on the airplane.”

Growing expectations are driving this trend, say aviation connectivity experts, as today’s business travelers demand access not just to email and the Internet, but also the ability to conduct video conferences and upload and download large files and reports while en route. They also want fast connections and reliable service, just like they receive in their homes and offices.

“Passengers have an expectation that what they can do on the ground, they also [should be able to do] in the air,” said James Person, director of ViaSat’s GA/VVIP business sector. “They have an expectation that they can stream high-definition video and movies. We’re delivering that in the air today.”

But meeting these expectations can be a challenge given the unusual operating environment of a business aircraft, as well as space and cost considerations that operators and OEMs must consider when installing connectivity systems.

“People today look at the Internet as something that is readily available,” said Jim Sparks, immediate past chairman of the NBAA Maintenance Committee. “You put this technology in an aircraft that is operating at 80 to 90 percent of the speed of sound at 40,000 feet over the earth anywhere in a given location, and it’s a minor miracle to get online at all.”

The transformation hasn’t been limited to the passenger cabin. It’s also transforming air-to-ground (ATG) communications in the cockpit. Today’s business jets now can connect to ground-based computers, enabling real-time monitoring of a host of aircraft operations and data, along with the ability to alert both those on the ground and in the cockpit to potential issues. Electronic flight bags (EFB) also have simplified operations for pilots and have reduced the amount of paperwork they must carry into the cockpit.

Consider the case of Avionics & Systems Integration Group (ASIG), maker of a variety of systems integration products for commercial, military and business aviation. Its Fly Tab iPad EFB is a Class 2 offering designed for commercial aircraft operators. Pilots can view and manage all aircraft operations from an Apple iPad display.

“When the pilot comes in with an iPad, it is placed into airplane mode, and all the onboard avionics are managed by our aircraft interface,” said Luke Ribich, ASIG managing director. “You can connect to a satcom system, or terrestrial or satellite-based broadband system. However, the data communications between the iPad device and the aircraft is facilitated on the wire.”

In Search of an Industry-Wide Standard

So explosive has the development in technology been over the last decade – after all, the Apple iPhone was only introduced in 2007 and the iPad in 2010 – that business aircraft operators have been struggling to keep up with the changes.

In response, NBAA last October elevated what had been a connectivity working group to a subcommittee of its Maintenance Committee. The new subcommittee is working with OEMs and operators to develop an industry-wide standard for integrating cabin electronic systems.

Subcommittee co-founders and co-chairs Mike Wuebbling of Boeing Flight Operations and Jim Janaitis, IBM’s manager of aircraft maintenance services, say the group’s goal is to establish common equipment, performance and serviceability standards.

“The first standard must be customer expectations, aimed toward the end user, but also establishing a standard that OEMs may manufacture and certify their equipment to,” Janaitis told NBAA when formation of the subcommittee was announced last October. “We are also examining post-certification aspects, including servicing the equipment and training for the technicians, flight attendants and flight crew members in the delivery of the service to the end users of the aircraft.”

Daunting Range of Options

Navigating the plethora of connectivity services and product offerings can be mind-boggling. The choices between satellite and ground-based systems can be nothing short of confusing for everyone but the most technologically savvy. For that reason, operators planning to install new systems or upgrade existing networks should start with a sound strategy. Developing a “connectivity plan” to analyze needs, customer expectations and budget also is highly recommended to help avoid problems and cost overruns.

“One of the common questions we get is, ‘I’m buying a used aircraft and am trying to understand what I need in terms of connectivity,” said Satcom Direct’s Hamilton. “And, one of the first things we ask is, ‘What’s the mission of the aircraft?’ and ‘Where is it going to be flying?’ because where it’s going to fly will heavily dictate what sort of broadband capability you have on the airplane.”

Business travelers today expect to be connected to the office, clients, employees and their families and friends 24/7 no matter where they are, even if it’s from 40,000 feet in the air.

Tom Myers, senior director of marketing for Gogo Business Aviation, adds: “Three questions we always start with when talking to an operator about communications and connectivity are, what capabilities are of interest, what type of aircraft is involved and where does the aircraft fly? Given the technologies available today, those answers usually start to point pretty clearly to the solutions.”

These questions sound simple, but they require a lot of research on the part of operators. For that reason, some experts say it pays to have a designated aviation IT person in place to analyze connectivity needs and capabilities. “A lot of flight departments we deal with, the operators of these aircraft, have a person who is the solely identified IT person, or it’s a collateral duty of someone,” said ViaSat’s Person.

However, many smaller operators hand that responsibility off to someone in the maintenance department.

“In our world of business aviation, technicians are A&P-licensed, which essentially means ‘all purpose,’” said Sparks. “The very first installation we did, we had one of our corporate IT people come out with a laptop. He looked at the network and saw what we had on the plane and threw his hands up in the air and left.”

The all-purpose guys finished the work, he said.

Challenges to Installation

Perhaps one of the most important considerations facing operators planning to install broadband on an aircraft is the space available for the equipment.

“The size of the equipment is one consideration that will drive an operator’s ultimate choice of equipment,” said Myers. “Size varies generally by the network service chosen. As an example, Iridium’s equipment is very small. The exterior antenna is about the size of a hockey puck.”

Gogo’s business equipment and some Swiftbroadband products also are relatively small and easily fit into smaller aircraft.

Sparks added that installing equipment also can be challenging. Most aircraft use WiFi to broadcast a network signal, so proper positioning of the router is critical. “Typically, the router power is somewhat limited. It’s not office-grade, producing a strong signal,” he said.

Bulkhead doors that contain aluminum honeycomb also can block a signal when closed. “So you may need a couple of antennas,” Sparks said. “And, with microwave ovens, the frequency can corrupt the data flow and bring it to a stop.”

Network installation and integration with existing systems also can ground an aircraft for weeks at a time.

“I’ve had ATG networks installed in a 12-day period,” Sparks said. “Satellite systems might take four weeks. If you’re running cabin WiFi or data plugs in the cabin, it can determine how much of the aircraft you have to take apart.”

Cost and Training Considerations

Of course, costs are another critical consideration. The experts advise operators to set a budget once basic needs are determined. How much operators will pay is based on a host of variables. But generally, the experts say to negotiate. “Depending on your buying power, you generally can procure these systems for a little less than market price, sometimes way less, depending on volume,” Sparks said.

Another important factor and potential cost for operators to keep in mind is training pilots and crew to operate the equipment and maintenance staff to service it. After all the headaches and costs operators and OEMs go through installing or upgrading broadband systems, the last thing they want is for the customer experience to be muddled by crew members who don’t know how to address an issue or help a passenger connect to the service.

FlightSafety International began offering connectivity courses several years ago, focusing primarily on Gulfstream aircraft.

“They came to us in the early stages of some of the high-tech applications and said their customers were upset because the equipment wasn’t working,” said Charlie Harvich, maintenance manager of FlightSafety’s Savannah training center. “We found out that it wasn’t just the equipment, but the folks operating the equipment.”

FlightSafety’s cabin management courses help maintenance staff and crew operate and service aircraft connectivity systems.

“Two [courses] are for maintenance [technicians] and provide in-depth training on maintaining these complex systems,” he said. “The other is focused on providing operational training for flight crews.”

All courses utilize a lab for hands-on practical experience. “Because it’s interactive and hands-on, we limit class sizes to six or eight folks,” Harvich said.

Connectivity Service Options

Of course, choosing the correct connectivity service also is important. For domestic capability, especially in the continental U.S., the choices are many and less costly. However, for international connectivity, there are many issues to consider. Connection services and frequencies can vary from those in the U.S. And, in some countries, such as China and Russia, connections through the Ku-band (12-18 GHz) satellite system are not available, said several industry experts. However, that is changing as the industry shifts to full adoption of the higher-capacity Ka band (26.5-40 GHz).

Currently, ViaSat professes to be the only company with high-capacity Ka-band satellites. It introduced Ka to the airlines in 2013, said Person. However, Inmarsat now has three Ka-band Global Xpress satellites in orbit around the earth, with a fourth satellite launch scheduled for the second half of 2016. When complete, Inmarsat says it will have the first high-speed broadband Internet network to span the world.

All this may get the tech geeks excited. However, for end-users, it’s the inflight experience that matters no matter how the connection is made to provide that “on the ground, in-home and office” connectivity. Currently, the leading business aviation provider is Gogo Business Aviation. Offering a full complement of broadband Internet and voice-and-text services, it was formed in September from the old Aircell service, which pioneered air-to-ground communications starting in 1991.

When selecting connectivity equipment and services, scalability is of critical importance.

Well known to airline travelers, Gogo Biz has been rapidly expanding its offerings. In May, it introduced Gogo Vision, a wireless in-flight entertainment (IFE) information service, which the company said brings a wide range of video entertainment to business aircraft. The service is broadcast via a new all-in-one router and media service. It enables users to access content via a suite of WiFi-enabled devices, including smart phones, tablets and laptops.

Gogo’s Text & Talk service is an exclusive add-on to its core Gogo Biz service. As the name implies, it enables users to text and talk from the cabin via their WiFi-connected smart phones. However, Gogo’s services are available only in the continental U.S. and parts of Canada.

One of the latest developments in broadband connectivity is the growth of 4G ATG connectivity. SmartSky networks is preparing a beta launch of the system later this year, with full rollout in 2016. The system will offer ground-like 4G connectivity over a user’s smart phone or other connected device. “You’ll be able to go on your business jet that has a SmartSky 4G system on it, and anything you can do in the office or hour home, you can do in the airplane,” said Ryan Stone, SmartSky president and director.

SmartSky enables live video conferencing and movie viewing, all in real time. SmartSky is working with several partners, including Satcom Direct, Duncan Aviation, Cessna and DAC International. The service initially only will be offered domestically. However, because it will function on a variety of frequencies, international rollout is expected in the not-too-distant future.

While SmartSky is not disclosing subscription costs, Stone said terms and equipment are comparable to those offered by Gogo. “Gogo is the only air-to-ground player right now, and our system will be comparable to their system,” he said.

With all the technological changes taking place, one thing should be absolutely clear: When selecting connectivity equipment and services, scalability is of critical importance, because a system that is cutting edge today can be yesterday’s has-been in no time.

Do Your Homework

In the end, deciding on which of these technologies fits a particular operator’s need and budget requires research. “I do a lot of research,” said Sparks.

Sparks also advises documenting everything when hiring outside vendors. “We have a form when we send a project out,” he said. “We make whoever is doing the work sign off on it.”

If someone has to drill a hole in a structural member to run an antenna, for example, the ongoing airworthiness inspection checks have to be consistent with the existing aircraft inspection.

“It has to be approved or at least acknowledged by the [OEM] that built the aircraft, so that we’re not creating a one-off aircraft that reduces its marketability,” Sparks said. “We state that all wiring installed has to meet EWIS standards, which is Part 25-1701. It’s a big thing.”

This article appeared in the July/August 2015 issue of Business Aviation Insider.