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Ideas on Elevating Your Inflight Connectivity

For many business aviation operators, reliable inflight connectivity systems are becoming more important than ever. Experts say operators should consider several factors before taking their aircraft connectivity to the next level.

Once upon a time, many overworked travelers could look forward to business aviation trips because they were forced to “disconnect” from the rest of the world.

That’s not as much the case today.

Now, for many business operators, inflight connectivity is almost a necessity. Fast and reliable data connections allow passengers to be infinitely more productive while traveling, which enables them to be more competitive, while contributing to a better work/life balance at home.

To meet that need, systems have to be designed in terms of connecting passengers to the real-time online experience, crewmembers to necessary flight planning and en-route information, and the aircraft’s IoT (Internet of Things) data to the maintainers and manufacturers.

While the connectivity needs of pilots and passengers mirror their everyday, out-of-aircraft usage, the ability to share inflight operational information with remote-based maintainers is becoming a huge asset in preventing maintenance issues that might otherwise hinder flight plans.

“We identified the problem, ordered the part from the engine manufacturer, and had the part on hand before the aircraft arrived. The ability to connect to the aircraft averted a prolonged AOG event. ”

FERN CAMPOS, Director of Maintenance at Disney

“The aircraft avionics’ ability to share ARINC 429 air data information [the standard for aircraft avionics] has been a fantastic evolution,” said Fern Campos, director of maintenance for Disney. “Pilots can now enjoy a variety of iPad applications that utilize this information. We can also collaborate with flight crews about inflight discrepancies while they’re happening.”

Campos recalled a recent issue his team had with an electronic engine control computer system on an aircraft flying over the Pacific. “The flight crew took pictures of the display and emailed them to us,” Campos said. “We identified the problem, ordered the part from the engine manufacturer, and had the part on hand before the aircraft arrived. The ability to connect to the aircraft averted a prolonged AOG event.”

It all comes down to getting the right data to the right person at the right time for the right purpose. When you take it out of the aircraft environment, this concept is not unique. Reliable connectivity is something we enjoy every minute of every day.

And in that expectation we’ve come to love can lie a potential problem.

A Different Kind of ‘Jet Lag’

It’s becoming increasingly difficult to imagine a time when you didn’t have the literal world in your hand – or at least in your hand-held device. Depending on the aircraft and its connectivity, it’s possible that the only place you may not have “instant” information is on board your company’s airplane.

Of course, it’s not the fault of your airplane or your connectivity provider – blame it on physics. Take a minute to think about the marvel of actually sending gigabytes of data – from an airplane up to a satellite in space and then back down to the airplane – while it’s zipping along anywhere over our planet at 600 mph. And yet, if a crucial inflight video call glitches or a critical email is a bit slower to send, some passengers may find themselves in a virtual panic.

First, it’s important to understand that the system requirements for sending an email over Boston are totally different from those for video conferences over Beijing. That’s why, when selecting the right connectivity solution for your aircraft, you must start by addressing what it will take to deliver the best overall passenger experience.

“We have passengers complain all the time that some app or another ‘works great in the office, but doesn’t work on the airplane.’ You can help passengers by recommending apps that are more ‘aircraft’ friendly. ”

Director of Maintenance for a Major Business Aviation Operator

“Our passengers are all business on our airplanes, especially on international flights,” said one director of maintenance (DOM) for a major operator. “They need to hold a lot of video conferences wherever they are in the world, so we need the fastest connection our satellite provider can deliver.

“But when we fly domestically – over the continental U.S. – we use another provider’s air-to-ground (ATG) services,” he continued. “The experience is equally good, and it’s much less expensive than the satellite connection.”

However, the various service areas covered by satellite and ATG networks aren’t the only decisions you have to make. Not all satellite systems are the same. Some are based on geostationary (GEO) satellites that are far away from Earth. Other providers use low-earth orbit (LEO) constellations, which are obviously much closer.

From a user-experience perspective, the most significant difference is the longer latency (signal lag) times of the GEO satellites. We’re talking about mere milliseconds, but the GEO signal lag can be long enough to pixelate any video conference.

There’s an App for That

Another way to help deliver the excellent user experience your passengers expect is to educate them about how the aircraft’s system works, what limitations they may encounter and whether there are any particular applications they can use to mitigate these issues.

“We have passengers complain all the time that some app or another ‘works great in the office, but doesn’t work on the airplane,’” said the DOM for the major operator. “You can help passengers by recommending apps that are more ‘aircraft’ friendly. They may not be as sophisticated as their terrestrial versions, but most will deliver the kinds of services that remote users will need.”

Avoiding the Dreaded ‘Disconnect’

While having a glitchy app may be an inconvenience, that’s nothing compared to having the aircraft’s entire connectivity system go offline.

“Running all of your aircraft’s connectivity through a central router can cause problems. That creates a single point of failure,” Campos explained. “We have our ATG and satellite systems installed independently from each other to create redundancy.

“For example, if we have an issue with our ATG, we can switch over to the satellite service,” he continued. “It also helps simplify troubleshooting and warranty issues. Since the two systems don’t overlap, if there’s an issue with one, we don’t have to look any further than that network.”

“Running all of your aircraft’s connectivity through a central router can cause problems. That creates a single point of failure. We have our ATG and satellite systems installed independently from each other to create redundancy. ”

FERN CAMPOS, Director of Maintenance at Disney

While that kind of redundancy wasn’t doable a few years ago, today’s smaller, lighter line replaceable units (LRUs) and antennas make it possible and affordable, even for smaller cabin aircraft.

Redundancy isn’t the only benefit of having a “split network” on your company airplane. It also enhances the network’s cybersecurity.

As Jon Wheeler, senior director of entry into service for Satcom Direct, explained, “One network can be highly secure and encrypted and dedicated for ‘business’ use. The other functions as the ‘guest’ connection and is used for passengers who bring their own devices,” Wheeler said. “They can log into the aircraft’s system without any fear of compromising the company’s network connection.”

“Keeping it simple helps eliminate problems,” Campos added. “Overall, the support from our providers has been great.”

Speaking of support, when shopping for a connectivity provider, don’t overlook the value of having a strong customer support network in place.

“Saving time and doing more are what business aircraft are all about,” Wheeler said. “You can’t undervalue the benefits of having a connectivity provider that will deliver the personalized ‘white glove’ level of service that you’d expect when dealing with an asset worth tens of millions of dollars. If you have an issue, you want to talk to a real person, not an AI bot. That doesn’t work for the people traveling on business jets.”

So, whether you’re choosing the type of connectivity system, or its bandwidth or deciding on an installer or provider, it’s important to research all the options first – because the world of connectivity is always changing.

Review NBAA’s connectivity resources at nbaa.org/connectivity.

Keeping Tabs on Cybersecurity

Experts agree: Effective aircraft cybersecurity is a team effort.

“Flight operations should have standard operating procedures for using the aircraft’s connection and make sure each passenger understands the reason before they log their devices onto the network,” said Jon Wheeler, senior director of entry into service for Satcom Direct. “The most obvious thing is to make sure they’re using the latest version of an anti-virus software.”

Cybersecurity is especially critical when operating internationally, said a director of maintenance (DOM) for a major operator. “Our provider has a premium security bundle that adds a greater level of security at their end,” the DOM said. “It also gives us notifications of which ground stations are handling our links. There are times when we tell our passengers not to use the network.”

Of course, while you need to protect data going off the airplane, it’s just as important when you’re loading information onto the airplane.

“One of the most valuable things an operator can do is to maintain the cybersecurity ‘health’ of all their supporting ground systems,” the DOM continued. “For example, your laptops, iPads, USBs – all digital equipment used to maintain the aircraft’s digital network need to be kept clean from digital contamination.

“It’s one thing you have direct control of, so don’t use those units for anything but working on that aircraft,” he added. “If you need to download information for the aircraft, ensure it’s from a 100% trusted and secure source. Even the USB drives you use to transfer information should be handled in a controlled fashion.”

All laptops, desktops and tablets must have the latest versions of whatever type of anti-malware application you use. Only use known and trustworthy software and apps.

Here are some steps you can take today to help make your personal device and your aircraft’s network more resistant to cyberattacks:

  • Protect your mobile devices. Never leave your phone, tablet or company USB drives unattended.
  • Secure your passwords. Use more than one password and keep them to yourself.
  • Update your passwords often and remember that length matters. Experts say the more complex your password, the better. Keep them in a secure location or use a password manager app.
  • When emailing sensitive information, make sure the files are encrypted.
  • Always look at an email asking you to reply to verify some personal or account information. When in doubt – don’t.
  • If you must use a WiFi hotspot, be sure to use secure sites or, better yet, use a virtual private network (VPN).
  • Use a multi-factor authentication protocol to provide extra layers of security. You can set it up using authentication apps, SMS verification or biometrics.
  • Only make online transactions through secure sites. These sites typically have a closed padlock icon in the browser’s status bar.
  • When online shopping, use one credit card that’s easy to cancel if necessary.
  • Keep your apps and operating systems updated with the latest versions to ensure that you have the best security patches and updates.

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