Aircraft connectivity is one of the biggest technological revolutions currently happening within the commercial aviation technology sector and providing enough bandwidth per aircraft for the consumption of data on today’s aircraft is an intensive process.
Airlines are in the business of flying passengers, but now have to employ specialists to guide them on decisions on how to give their customers the best connectivity possible. And it is confusing.
The problem is that there are two main technologies making on-board Wi-Fi possible: air-to-ground transmission system (ATG), and satellite Ku/Ka-Band services. So which system do they use?
Many airlines are increasingly considering satellite-based connectivity solutions because they cover the entire planet.
On 18 October, Starlink Aviation announced that beginning in 2023, it would roll out its full service to aviation customers. This new program looks to enhance in-flight connectivity for passengers, as the world’s largest satellite constellation. Starlink will deliver up to 350 Mbps to each aircraft, enabling all passengers to engage in activities previously not functional in flight, including video calls, online gaming, virtual private networks and other high data rate activities.
Hawaiian Airlines has already made its decision to use Starlink. CEO and President of Hawaiian Airlines, Peter Ingram, stated, “When we launch with Starlink we will have the best connectivity experience available in the air. Our guests can look forward to fast, seamless and free Wi-Fi to complement our award-winning on-board Hawaiian hospitality.”
Air France KLM presently offers connectivity from different service providers and has internally developed a passenger access portal that makes the user interface the same for passengers regardless of the network they’re using.
Sam Krouwer, product owner of in-flight connectivity at Air France KLM, also expressed interest in the future possibility of Low Earth Orbit (LEO) satellites like Starlink. “What was new for me to learn was that LEO could solve the coverage issues we have around polar areas, which is a challenge on some of the routes we fly,” said Krouwer. “At KLM, we fly North Atlantic routes a lot and it is a pain for our customers when the connectivity drops after you reach the Arctic region, so let’s hope LEO can fix that problem for us.”
With over 3,000 satellites in orbit, Starlink is designed to reach customers in every corner of the Earth. This enables it to reach any aircraft regardless of position or altitude.
Air to ground (ATG)
Many airlines already offer in-flight Wi-Fi services, but these services typically use ATG connections with limited range, meaning they can only be used over land, not over the ocean. Newer ATG technology will enable transmissions to travel across shorter distances to and from the aircraft.
With advanced 5G technologies and a unique network architecture, ATG will enable multi-gigabytes of data per hour to move between the aircraft and the ground without delay to support cloud-based applications and operational needs. Presently, ATG is relatively slow, sometimes only offering speeds of only 10Mbps. So ATG is generally seen for land, as is cheaper, with national and short-haul route carrier passengers to benefit the most.
Companies like SmartSky Networks and their colleagues Liberty Partners, which use ATG, believe that they will still have a market, and have recently completed their latest Supplementary Type Certificate (STC) project, on the Cessna Citation X series.
Biz jets join connectivity surge
The COVID pandemic saw an influx of new clients for business aircraft operators as executives who wanted to minimise the risk of infection headed to the private lounges and uncrowded cabins of business jet operators.
The typical passenger on board a business jet increasingly expects that connectivity will be a part of their journey. “Individuals who flew high-end business class moved into business aviation and haven’t left,” SmartSky Networks’ VP of marketing and partnerships, Britton Wanick said.
One hurdle in fitting air to ground connectivity equipment to executive aircraft is finding the necessary locations on board: “Space is at a premium,” Duncan noted. “Usually the antenna provisions are the most challenging.”
Power requirements, weight and drag factors also have to be taken into consideration in smaller aircraft. SmartSky is working on a ‘lite’ product to specifically address the needs of the business aviation marketplace. SmartSky’s previous projects have included aircraft from the Bombardier, Gulfstream and Embraer stables. Its Embraer STC, for example, covers the Brazilian manufacturer’s 135 and 145 regional jets, which are flown both by private operators and by the flight departments of large companies as corporate shuttles: “That makes a nice launch pad for us to branch into commercial aviation on regional aircraft,” Wanick said.
The potential market for companies such as Smartsky and Liberty is considerable; from an addressable market of 25,000-26,000 business aviation aircraft, only around 6,000 currently have broadband connectivity. SmartSky focuses on the continental U.S. at present, but in the longer term, aims to move into adjacent markets in Canada and Mexico.
“We have roughly 5,000 aircraft covered under current STCs and are actively adding new STCs as we speak. We will continue that effort to build out and cover the largest portion of the business aviation market.” Wanick said.
Both companies see a trend towards connectivity installation on small aircraft, even including helicopters. Liberty already have STCs on the Bell 407 and Airbus AS350 Series helicopters, under part23, 25 and 27 rules.