Not all datalink services are created equal

 - September 12, 2006, 1:30 PM

When it comes to the market for business aircraft datalink messaging services, three companies have settled into sharing and competing for most of the available business. Honeywell’s service is provided by its Global Data Center in Redmond, Wash., while Arinc Direct operates from Arinc’s headquarters in Annapolis, Md. Universal Weather & Aviation, which got its start with weather briefings and expanded into aircraft handling, augments those services with datalink messaging via its UVdatalink service.

The three companies offer many similar services, including datalinking via VHF and satellite, flight planning, air traffic services, text and graphical weather, flight tracking and participation in the FAA’s collaborative decision-making program designed to help minimize traffic delays.

Each provider also adds its own services to the mix and is constantly seeking ways to stay ahead of the competition by delivering more to customers.

Arinc Data Messaging

Following a recent agreement, pilots flying aircraft equipped with Honeywell’s Primus Epic avionics platform (PlaneView on new Gulfstreams and EASy on Falcons) will be able to use Arinc data messaging services. Earlier this year, Honeywell announced that it licensed the necessary software to Arinc so Arinc Direct datalink messages and other data traffic will work in Primus Epic cockpits.

The new Epic service won’t be available right away, according to Gary Gambarani, Arinc director of flight support services. “We’re waiting for delivery of tools,” he said. “Then we’ll need to do some development on our end, during the next few months.” Despite the competition between Honeywell and Arinc for messaging customers, Honeywell’s agreement to work with Arinc “is good for the industry,” he added.

Arinc, which is owned by airlines and is for sale, has long been the backbone of the VHF datalink messaging network used in the U.S. and parts of Europe. For areas not covered by its own network, Arinc Direct uses Inmarsat for satellite messaging, as well as Telenor’s ground-
station network.

Most of the messaging providers don’t like to discuss pricing. But they do have pricing philosophies. “Our philosophy was to stay away from the nickel and diming,” explained Gambarani. “We like to bundle everything into the subscription price.”

Arinc Direct uses the Sabre system for its flight-planning engine and offers subscriptions that include unlimited flight planning. Because most Arinc Direct subscriptions are all-inclusive, there is no extra fee for flight plan changes.
Arinc’s weather provider is DTN/Meteorlogix, and for cockpit delivery, subscribers must buy an additional package on top of their Direct service.

Basic destination services are available. For example, Arinc Direct’s flight operations center will send a message to the FBO to request a limo or fuel. But for customers who need more assistance, three years ago Arinc started offering another add-on package for flight-following services.

Flight coordinators help operators plan their flights then track the flight and take care of any problems such as weather, ATC delays and rerouting to keep the flight on schedule. Staff meteorologists watch the weather before and during flights and they can warn customers when destination weather is deteriorating. Arinc also offers international handling services, including trip handling, overflight permits, hotels and ground transportation. A recently opened fueling desk assists with fuel arrangements, including discounts.

Arinc offers three basic packages. Most customers opt for the middle one, which includes everything except satellite messaging and graphical weather; these cost extra. While Arinc doesn’t like to reveal prices, an Arinc customer told AIN that
the middle package costs about $9,000
per year. “We’re cost-competitive with the other service providers,” Gambarani said.

Honeywell Global Data Center

Honeywell’s Global Data Center (GDC) uses both the Arinc and Sita networks for VHF message delivery in the U.S. and parts of Europe, according to Dave Smoley, vice president for the database and information services business. “Sita has aggressively moved into North America,” he said, “and appears to be highly competitive in terms of price and quality of service. The cost for using Sita is lower, and that could eventually be passed on to the customer.”

Honeywell has more than 2,500 business jets as datalink customers and has served this market for more than 20 years. “We invented the AFIS [datalink] box,” Smoley said. While Honeywell has continually added new services, customers responding to a survey late last year indicated that they want to buy messaging services and trip handling from one company. Honeywell is considering adding handling services, he added, which could be a big opportunity, especially as business aviation grows in Asia and the Middle East.

“The number-one thing that people are interested in,” he said, “is reliable messaging, reliable service. They want to be able to trust their service provider to deliver for them.

“The second is accuracy of flight plans; they want to be able to quickly and easily run what-ifs around the flight, then be as accurate as possible in terms of fuel burn, waypoints and time. Then get it filed and be advised if there are changes, notams, weather situations or other issues.”

For operators that regularly fly into congested airspace, Honeywell offers an extra service called Flight Sentinel. While all of the providers participate in the FAA’s collaborative decision-making program, Honeywell’s Flight Sentinel delivers that information to customers in real time, whether they’re on the ground or in the air. This can help reduce delays or allow a customer to make it into an airport that otherwise might be unavailable, Smoley said. Flight Sentinel also provides flight-tracking and -following services.

“With Flight Sentinel,” Smoley said, “we take on that responsibility. The day before the flight, we’re reviewing the weather and airways and making recommendations and advising changes to your flight plan.” If a customer is flying to Teterboro from the West Coast and there are congestion problems, the Flight Sentinel experts will make arrangements for a convenient alternate.

“It’s most valuable in parts of the country where there is regular congestion,” he said. Flight Sentinel costs an additional $5,000 per aircraft per year, but the price per aircraft drops when an operator adds more aircraft.

Honeywell offers GDC either as a monthly service for operators who don’t need all the services, in a basic plan that includes some of the products and as a premium worldwide package that includes all flight support services and up to 1,500 flight plans a year. A la carte monthly plan users pay extra for flight plans and a
fee for changes. Delivery of engine trend data is included in the packages, which
is understandable because Honeywell is an engine OEM.

Honeywell’s graphical Weather Information Network (winn) costs extra and delivers graphical weather to almost any device, including the Epic platform, EFBs or to Internet-connected computers. A neat winn feature is a profile view of various weather products so pilots can see the weather at various altitudes.

Smoley doesn’t believe that price is the most important factor for customers. “I think both Arinc and Honeywell will compete head to head on pricing where it becomes an issue,” he said. “Generally, customers don’t buy based on price; they buy on trust and accuracy and ease of use.”

For PDA, Blackberry and cellphone users, Honeywell can deliver functions such as text messages, OOOI reports, pre-departure clearances, flight-plan requests, position checks and time and distance checks. “It’s not a big deal,” Smoley said.

Next up for Honeywell is new pico-cell technology, which is a low-power cell site that rides in the aircraft cabin, allowing passengers to use their cellphones in flight. “It has not been approved yet,” Smoley said, “but we expect it [to be] within the next six to 12 months.” Honeywell is also ready for the upcoming debut of Swift 64 high-speed-data satellite technology, which goes live in July.

Universal Weather & Aviation UVdatalink

Universal Weather & Aviation’s UVdatalink is just one service provided by this multifaceted company. Universal Weather entered the corporate aviation market in 1959 with weather briefing services. Now the company offers a complete datalink messaging service as well as trip planning, global fuel management, ground handling and, of course, weather data. Universal Weather & Aviation customers also have access to the company’s UVglobal network of ground service providers all over the world.

UVdatalink is available in a variety of packages, from a la carte to an all-inclusive annual flat fee for unlimited use, according to Brian Allen, manager of UVdatalink sales and marketing. The flight-planning system is Universal Weather & Aviation’s own UVflightplanner. All air traffic messages are supported by UVdatalink. “We were the first acars datalink service provider to support fully automated oceanic clearances westbound from UK North Atlantic Tracks,” Allen added.

In-house meteorologists prepare weather information for delivery to UVdatalink customers. Allen said that UVdatalink is the only provider that can deliver graphical weather charts to the Universal Avionics UniLink, the Teledyne Controls TeleLink and the Rockwell Collins Pro Line 21 platform.

Universal Weather & Aviation’s customer care center provides dispatching and flight- handling services 24/7. UVdatalink includes graphical aircraft tracking capability, and tracking messages can be sent to fax machines, e-mail addresses and PDAs.

There is no extra charge for delivery of engine trend data. “UVdatalink currently supports several aircraft using engine trend data monitoring,” said Allen.