Paris Air Show

OEMs taking different routes to standard satcom for airliners

 - December 12, 2006, 1:13 PM

The three new communications media that have become indispensable in recent years– cellular telephony, electronic mail and the worldwide Web–are now becoming a realistic option for the airlines.

One of the two major service providers vying for their business is backed by Airbus; the other is a wholly owned subsidiary of Boeing. Each OEM plans to make its preferred solution a standard fit on its own future airframes, though neither is keen to discriminate against the other’s aircraft. And while both plan to use satellite communications as the air/ ground medium, their approaches are quite different.

Broadband Internet

Connexion by Boeing (CBB) has been in business since 2000 and its service is operational on long-haul airliners operated by launch customer Lufthansa plus All Nippon Airways, Korean Air, Japan Airlines, SAS and Singapore Airlines. China Airlines was to begin offering service this month and El Al later this year. CBB also has a letter of intent covering its introduction by Asiana, and it holds definitive service agreements signed so far covering more than 200 aircraft.

The Connexion by Boeing service relies on a proprietary antenna designed by Mitsubishi Electric. It communicates with ground stations in Ku band via transponders on satellites operated by Intelsat, Eutelsat, AsiaSat, SES Americom and Yamal, which cover routes in a region stretching east from North America to the Asia/Pacific.

The service provides passengers using their own laptop computers or other devices with access to the Internet via wireless or Ethernet connections. A connection costs $29.95 on flights lasting six hours or more, $19.95 on flights of three to six hours and $14.95 on flights of less than three hours.

The company reveals little information about the cost of installing the equipment, although an aircraft downtime of 10 days is typical for a retrofit installation. The cost to El Al of equipping eight aircraft was reported to be $3 million, substantially less than previously published estimates of $600,000 per airplane.

Lufthansa Technik led the way in engineering the installation on Airbus A330s and A340s, which were the first commercial airliners to be equipped, while Boeing designs the installation for its own products–typically 747-400s and 777s–and either carries out the work itself or supplies kits to installers such as Lufthansa Technik.

Flexible Service

OnAir, a joint venture of SITA and Airbus, was incorporated earlier this year to provide Internet capability. The new company also integrated Seattle-based Tenzing, the in-flight e-mail pioneer whose service has been deployed on more than 900 aircraft. Tenzing’s technology will be the basis for the new company’s on-board corporate virtual private network and Internet access services.

OnAir has opted to use the 432-kbps SwiftBroadband service that is due to be available starting next year on the new Inmarsat 4 satellites to support long-haul aircraft. For short-haul traffic it could use one of the two constellations of medium Earth orbit satellites: Iridium and Globalstar.

OnAir CEO George Cooper told Aviation International News that the company’s first priority is to enable passengers to use their own GSM cellphones on short-haul flights in Europe. The first airplane to be equipped will probably be a single-aisle Airbus with a line-fit installation to ease the certification process.

SITA is an airline-owned organization, so affordability was high on its list of priorities. So was inclusivity. Cooper said OnAir’s proposition can be summed up as offering voice and data communications on long- and short-haul aircraft, whether Boeing or Airbus, addressing passengers’ needs and providing them with a choice along with an economically viable model for the airlines.

For widebody aircraft, existing Inmarsat avionics and high-gain antennas providing access to the SwiftBroadband service have “all the capabilities we need to offer to offer voice and data,” he said. For short-haul fleets a higher percentage of aircraft will require new equipment, so simplicity, low cost and low weight were prime considerations.

Another differentiation is that OnAir sees voice and text messaging as more important for short haul, and data for long haul. There will be a built-in facility to permit cabin crew to switch off the voice capability but still allow SMS and GPRS to prevent phone conversations from disturbing other passengers, although that is seen as less of an issue on the short-haul sector.

GSM is a key technology, Cooper said, since 70 percent of the world’s mobile phone subscribers, and 95 percent of transatlantic travelers, have a GSM-capable device. The protocol is also used by GPRS devices such as the Blackberry. So a GSM picocell that will control the output level of passengers’ telephones and prevent them from interfering with either onboard systems or ground networks will be a key part of the equipment.

Other elements of the short-haul installation are a “leaky line” cable either in the ceiling or under the floor to provide wireless connectivity–“because of cabin monuments we can’t do it with a single access point,” Cooper said–plus a base station, radio and antenna. Airbus’ Buxtehude, Germany facility is responsible for developing and certifying the airborne system.

Cooper said the service bulletin for retrofit will be modularized so the equipment can be installed either by an airline’s own engineering staff or a third-party maintenance organization in the course of five night stops on the ramp plus one hangar input for the antenna installation.

Initial airworthiness certification is likely to focus on a line installation, Cooper said. The regulators would prefer to use the latest version of an aircraft because that will have the highest levels of electromagnetic interference, “then it’s simple to translate that into a retrofit kit.”

Cooper sees the end-user price as even more important than affordability by the airlines. “It’s about choice,” he said. “If you’re flying London to Frankfurt you can make calls on the aircraft or on the ground. But if the price is significantly different there is no choice.”

Accordingly, OnAir will set its charges at the level of international roaming rates, and because they are expected to come down as a result of consumer pressure, there is a built-in 10-percent-per-annum price deflator over five years to reassure airlines that the service will have long-term viability.

The service will also require the approval of national telecommunications regulatory authorities. The approach, again, is to start the regulatory process in Europe, via the European Conference of Postal and Telecommunications Administrations (CEPT), then roll it out to other authorities.

“We’re working through CEPT working groups on telecommunications, spectrum engineering, interference, frequency management and so on,” Cooper explained. “The process is continuing and it’s a lot of effort but there is no reason to believe there will be a significant delay.”

The process will culminate in recommendations by the CEPT’s Electronic Communications Committee (ECC) to the continent’s 46 national regulators. “Those national regulators will decide on what conditions they grant a license to airlines registered in their country to operate aircraft with that service, so we will go to each national regulator with the ECC recommendation,” he said.

The targeted entry into service data of mid-2006 for short-haul routes in Europe means airlines that want the service need to be talking to OnAir now, Cooper said. So far the “well known cabin innovators” have shown interest in the long-haul sector, and there has been a lot of interest from short-haul and low-cost operators.