Connexion by Boeing airborne Internet in airline service

 - March 22, 2007, 7:08 AM

Since Connexion by Boeing was announced four years ago, the service has matured from tantalizing possibility to in-service reality.

Lufthansa Airbus A340-300s and -600s are already providing the service on the carrier’s Munich-Tokyo and Munich-Los Angeles routes, and the first Connexion-equipped All Nippon Airlines and Scandinavian Airline System (SAS) aircraft should be in service this fall.

Lufthansa Technik (LHT) designed the installations for its parent airline’s long-range Airbus models, and this summer announced that it would be supporting the installation of the equipment on seven A340-300s and four A330-300s operated by Lufthansa’s Star Alliance partner, SAS.

LHT has already carried out the pre-installation work on the SAS fleet, including an analysis of the aircraft at Copenhagen Airport so that the systems and components could be adapted to the specific airframes. The outfitter supplies complete installation kits, and a team of engineers will supervise the work during the conversion phase.
Under a contract signed with Connexion in late May, LHT is responsible for developing installation Service Bulletins (SBs) for the A340-300 and -600 and the A330-300.

The SB is provided to airlines as part of the sign-up package for the Connexion service, and LHT also provides adaptive engineering and certification support on request. LHT will start to equip Lufthansa’s A330-300s next month.

Boeing will design the fit for Lufthansa’s 747-400s, which LHT will start to equip this month. Boeing is also designing the installation of the equipment for ANA’s first 777-300ER, which was due to be rolled out in Seattle last month and handed over to Boeing AOG for the work to be carried out.

Ulf Hallman, Lufthansa Technik’s director of engineering services, VIP and government jet maintenance, said that his department had pursued five basic goals in designing the installation. One was to avoid any significant
effect on aircraft performance. “We worked with Airbus to find the ideal antenna location that would produce least drag,” he said. Test results, using performance analysis tools that have an accuracy of 0.3 percent, show no increase in fuel consumption, “so the antenna has no visible effect on fuel consumption.”

For the installation itself, the goal was a completion time of 10 days or less. That has been achieved, Hallman said; by the end of June work on three of the airline’s 10 A340-600s and five A340-300s had been completed.

Maintainability was another objective, Hallman said, so maintenance intervals were designed to stay in line with major overhaul events. The structural provision requires inspection only every 7,500 flight cycles, corresponding to typical C- and D-check cycles, with nothing in between.

Simplicity of operation was another goal. Accordingly, there is a cabin control panel for the network in the video control center with on/off switch and fault indication, as well as a control panel in the cockpit. Normally, the system turns on automatically when the aircraft reaches 10,000 feet.

The final goal was to avoid using space in the electronics equipment (EE) bay that the manufacturer might earmark subsequently for other purposes, which would require the Connexion boxes to be moved. So new racks were added to the EE bay, and because they had to be located on top of the wheel wells, which are subject to heavy structural loads, the design involved close cooperation with Airbus.

Altogether, Lufthansa plans to equip 78 aircraft for the Connexion service in a program that will extend into 2006. All of its 30 Boeing 747s and 48 A330/340s will receive a new business-class interior and in-flight entertainment systems at the same time.

LHT holds STCs for the Connexion installations from Germany’s civil aviation authority (the LBA) and the European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA). The FAA was validating the EASA STC under the bilateral aviation safety agreement implementation procedures for avionics (IPA) process. Hallman said that having applied for EASA and FAA STCs at the same time, LHT was able to incorporate some specific FAA requirements at an early stage.

Other airlines could opt to develop their own modification, Hallman said, but that would amount to reinventing the wheel when there is a certified mod already available. “Airlines are all different, so each airline will require an extension of the STC,” he said. “Usually the cabin interiors are totally different, so we have to adapt the design, but differences in the primary structure are insignificant.”

Hallman said Airbus had been very supportive throughout the process, despite the system’s origin: “Airbus is very customer-minded, and it was clever enough to understand that this is buyer-furnished equipment so it is prepared to help customers get the best out of it.”

Some technical issues required some serious engineering work, he said. The antenna housing, for example, creates more than 13,000 pounds of lift, so the mounting frame had to be reinforced. There are also six line replaceable units (LRUs) that need to be installed immediately under the antenna, and the crown area on the A340 is very limited in height, “so it was a challenge to get all the equipment in, and get cooling air in and out again. The air has to be vented into the bilging, so there is ducting through the entire aircraft.”

LHT has also started negotiations with other potential customers. By mid-July Connexion by Boeing had announced definitive service agreements with Japan Airlines and Saudi Arabia’s Kingdom Holding, in addition to Lufthansa, SAS and ANA, as well as letters of intent from Singapore Airlines, China Airlines and Korean Air.

Connexion regional sales director Kala Iyer said the service had attracted 10 to 15 users per flight in the first two weeks of the Lufthansa Munich-Los Angeles service, which started on May 17. The service was free until the beginning of July and she did not expect to see any reduction following the introduction of a $29.95-per-flight charge for the airborne Internet service.

Passengers logging on for the first time create a profile; subsequently, they simply enter their user name and password. Lufthansa, which brands the service FlyNet, also offers a free portal providing access to a wide range of news stories that is updated hourly, plus cached travel and shopping services.

Iyer said some finance companies had been wary of using the Wi-Fi wireless connection to the service because of worries about security, but some large companies, such as Siemens, had signed on as corporate customers so that all their employees could use it. “We made it secure enough to access virtual private networks,” she said. More than 300,000 individuals have been signed up through their companies so far. Boeing Commercial Airplanes is also writing a lot of applications for airline operational use.

The biggest cost to Boeing is leasing the Ku-band transponders on geostationary satellites that connect the airborne and ground elements of the network, Iyer said. So the company developed a scalable plan under which additional transponders would be leased to meet growing demand or the leases returned if interest wanes.

Future plans include enabling passengers to use their cellphones on board, Iyer added. “We’re doing the technical part within Connexion now, and we’re looking at partners who could make it more painless. We could do voice-over-Internet protocol telephony today, but it takes up bandwidth for as long as the call lasts, so we don’t recommend it.”

LHT’s first experience with the Connexion equipment was the installation a couple of years back of a receive antenna to enable the occupants of a private Airbus A340 to enjoy live television broadcasts during flights.

That installation helped the company develop the fit for a Lufthansa 747-400 that was used for in-service trials of the commercial Connexion service early last year. In that case, twin phased-array antennas were used rather than the single mechanically steered antenna that Mitsubishi Electric has developed for production installations.