Business aircraft operators are beginning to follow the growing ranks of airlines that provide passengers with on-board connectivity for telephony, message and Internet-access services. Indeed, this sector now accounts for about 10 percent of Airbus/SITA joint venture OnAir’s 45 aviation customers, although not all clients have yet deployed the service.
According to chief commercial officer Stephan Egli, OnAir (Stand 583) is aiming its equipment at all business aircraft operators, but the most successful campaigns have involved Airbus and Boeing products. OnAir enables airline and corporate aircraft passengers to use mobile devices to make and receive telephone calls and short or multi-media messages (SMS or MMS), or to obtain access to the Internet (for which it provides a GSM network and WiFi local area network hotspot, respectively, in the cabin).
Although OnAir signed its first contract to provide an in-flight connection system for a Middle East customer’s corporate Airbus A319 in 2008, it was only last year that agreement was reached covering a purpose-built business jet–the Dassault Falcon 7X. The equipment has been specified for an aircraft operated by Geneva-based operator Dasnair, which manages and charters the Dassault family’s aircraft, and OnAir is working on a supplementary type certificate covering installation of the system.
Initially, the business aircraft package is available only as a retrofit, but Egli said OnAir is discussing the possibility of production-line installation with “certain OEMs” that could lead to an announcement later this year. He claimed that many manufacturers have received operator enquiries for the system.
OnAir systems are available for almost all major commercial airliners: all current Airbus models can be equipped during manufacture, or later during routine maintenance work, while installation is available as a retrofit on Boeing production aircraft. Egli said there is no demand to equip older A300 and A310 models and no orders yet for the Boeing 747 or 757.
Heavy Demand in Middle East
The Swiss-based company introduced its in-flight global system for mobile (GSM) communications and Internet services in late 2008, with combined services first becoming available in early 2010. “Today, the vast majority of airline customers choose both services to meet their passengers’ preference,” said Egli. Eight recent customers are set to introduce the systems by year-end, by which time there will be 20 or 22 such operators.
As happened with OnAir’s commercial operators, the corporate aircraft market has been led by heavy demand from the Middle East and Gulf regions, with Asia Pacific also now being clearly evident, according to Egli. He said more and more corporate jet operators, especially those that charter or lease equipment, share the airlines’ view that availability of in-flight telephony and Internet services is a key differentiator for business travelers.
Asked if business aircraft lessors and charter companies are principal targets for OnAir, he said all operators are in its sights. After heads of state or very wealthy individuals, corporations are seen as potential customers, as well as users of “very prestigious, but much smaller” aircraft, like the Falcon 7X.
Cost Varies with Size
The cost of system acquisition varies with aircraft size, from around $250,000 per shipset for a small corporate jet to $1 million or more for a large commercial airliner, such as an Airbus A380 or Boeing 777. An additional consideration is whether the equipment is installed on the production line or put in as a retrofit modification.
Egli told AIN that the question of equipment size and weight is “tricky” because of many variables, including customer specification. “There is a big advantage in using Swift Broadband satellite communications [satcom] already installed so as not to introduce a second system.” Depending on the original satcom fit, the hardware could weigh between 25 to 100 kilograms (55 to 220 pounds).
According to Egli, there have been “no real concerns” or teething troubles with initial business aircraft installations, but he acknowledged that when first introduced in 2008, the equipment had been “a bit too heavy for smaller aircraft,” leading to development of a smaller, lighter platform.
OnAir said business aircraft passengers’ use of in-flight connectivity reflects that on commercial airlines. When the technology is available, almost all use involves GSM communications, with only light use of Internet access–and that usually via smart phones or tablet personal computers, rather than laptop devices.
The equipment is available for selection from the manufacturer’s catalogue as a production-line fit on most new-build Airbus models (or otherwise by adoption of a service bulletin), while installation on Boeing aircraft is usually via a supplemental type certificate during heavy-maintenance checks. Regulatory approval for the system has been obtained in almost 80 countries and can be gained typically within the 12-month lead-time following a customer order, said OnAir.
Egli confirmed that OnAir expects Inmarsat’s Ka-band GlobalXpress solution, an alternative to the existing Ku- and L-band services that will provide users with 30 percent more throughput (or 30 percent more data volume) for the same price, to be available for commercial aviation in 2014.
Nevertheless, he acknowledged that it could be up to a year before the first customers sign up to Inmarsat Global Xpress services, with a “50-percent chance” of an announcement before year-end.