Commercial airlines headquartered in the Asia Pacific region are still in the early days of equipping their aircraft with in-flight connectivity (IFC) and establishing new flight operational, maintenance and passenger experience applications. At the same time, a number of new satellite-based in-flight connectivity networks and services are becoming available.
According to third quarter 2019 data pulled from Valour Consultancy’s quarterly IFC tracker, approximately 187 aircraft operating out of Mainland China–4.9% of China’s active commercial fleet–currently have connectivity.
“When we factor in aircraft originating out of Hong Kong and Taiwan this number increases to 9%. Comparing this to the rest of Asia Pacific, we estimate 22% of the commercial fleet in rest of Asia is connected as of September 2019, up from 19% at the end of 2018,” Daniel Welch, a senior consultant for Valour Consultancy told Avionics International. “Major contributors to this increase include, All Nippon Airways, Qantas, Virgin Australia, Singapore Airlines and AirAsia.”
In comparison, 80% of active commercial airliners in North America have access to varying levels of IFC service, mainly due to Gogo’s first generation air to ground network being established before similar networks and satellites started being leveraged for connected aircraft flying in the Asia Pacific region. 2019, however, was a major year of progress in getting new antennas, modems, servers, wiring and wireless access points onboard airliners in the region to enable more connectivity usage.
That’s a trend that will continue into the 2020s, according to Welch, who said there are approximately 900 aircraft in the backlog of “various IFC service providers” awaiting connectivity in the Asia Pacific region right now. Over the last year, more service providers continue to announce new satellites bringing more capacity to the region as well.
“I remain convinced that we will see new announcements come from airlines in Mainland China, which had previously been prevented from deploying IFC domestically because of regulation that has now been lifted,” Welch said. “A successful launch of the ChinaSat-18 satellite would have been a catalyst for new announcements (in our opinion), but sadly it encountered fundamental issues during launch. This has undoubtedly pushed back domestic commitments but there are a number of reasons to remain optimistic that increased adoption will come in the next 2-3 years.”
China Satcom, the operator of ChinaSat-18, still has the ability to leverage its ChinaSat-16 satellite for Ka-band coverage for aircraft flying over China’s eastern coast, according to Welch. At the same time, another Chinese satellite operator, APT Mobile Satellite, will soon launch its APSTAR-6D XTS satellite, which will augment the Ku-band networks of both Panasonic Avionics and Gogo over Mainland China and further afield, according to Welch.
What Airlines Are Connecting To in the Asia Pacific
Inmarsat and Panasonic Avionics are two of the industry’s most active IFC players in the region in terms of developing and launching more satellites to bring more capacity and faster connection speeds to passengers and pilots using their services onboard.
A total of 21 operators based in the Asia Pacific region, representing over 800 aircraft, currently use Panasonic for their connectivity service. These include Air China, All Nippon Airways, Cathay Pacific Airways, China Airlines, China Eastern, China Southern, EVA Air, Garuda Indonesia, Hainan Airlines, Hong Kong Airlines, Japan Airlines, Singapore Airlines, Thai Airways and Xiamen Airlines.
In 2020, Panasonic’s Extreme Throughput Satellite (XTS) service becomes available, enabled by a third-generation modem and accompanied by a new data analytics platform. APT Mobile Satcom will operate APSTAR 6D — the satellite behind XTS that will become the first Ku-band high throughput satellite providing coverage over Mainland China. Co-designed by Panasonic Avionics, the anchor client to APT Mobile Satcom, the new XTS service will provide 30 Gbps of dedicated high throughput capacity over Mainland China.
“Between our third generation modem, and that XTS satellite coming available in early 2020, we’re going to greatly increase our capabilities in the Asia Pacific region,” Paul Kent, director of connectivity products, digital solutions and services for Panasonic Avionics told Avionics.
According to Kent, 250 Mbps is the “theoretical maximum” speed that their modem can deliver to the aircraft from the satellite. That speed is then divided amongst uses cases between passengers and flight crews.
One of the airlines that will equip its aircraft with Panasonic’s third-generation modem will have the ability to support some unique connected cockpit applications with its newest aircraft,¬¬ featured on the cover of this month’s issue of Avionics — the first Airbus A350 to feature touchscreen cockpit displays. The displays are designed to act as one coordinated system with a connected electronic flight bag (EFB) tablet used by pilots.
Kent said the XTS service would be used to provide cockpit connectivity as well as cabin connectivity for Asia Pacific region carriers.
“Operational data is absolutely a large component of what we do, we provision separate SSIDs, for our cabin crews and our flight deck crews that are also separate, we have some provisions where we establish a separate wireless access point for the flight deck, and they will have their own ability to connect and their own apps and their own configurations potentially for separate things they may need to do,” Kent said.
Singapore Airlines will also leverage the new XTS service on some flights to find unique connected cockpit application use cases. Ng Yung Han, vice president of product innovation for Singapore Airlines, said their fleet will reach 100% equipage status by 2021.
“Currently, about 80% of our fleet of over 120 aircraft have inflight connectivity as well,” Han told Avionics. “By early 2020, our entire long-haul fleet will have in-flight connectivity; and by around mid 2021, 100% of our fleet will have Wi-Fi and GSM services. We are partnering with Panasonic and Thales, for our in-flight entertainment; and Panasonic and SITAONAIR (using Inmarsat’s satellite network) for in-flight connectivity.”
Singapore Airlines pilots are also in the midst of trials for a connected cockpit application that could benefit from the increased capacity. EFB Weather Awareness Solution (eWAS), developed by SITAONAIR in partnership with GTD, acts as a cloud-hosted EFB weather forecasting app that SITAONAIR’s AppsConnect, a connectivity cloud-hosted hub, is capable of connecting to available satellite communications networks.
Weather information is obtained by the application through a multi-source forecast format fused by weather forecasting feeds pulled from weather data providers including DTN, NOAA, WSI, Jeppesen and Meteo-France. Toby Tucker, portfolio director for SITAONAIR, describes eWAS as a “a real-time weather application which works on personal electronic devices … and provides a graphical view of forecasts and current weather data from multiple sources.”
“Cockpit integration is achieved through interfacing via an airline AID device or dedicated aircraft IP connections,” Tucker said. “The application provides information on weather events including wind and temperature at each flight level, tropopause and ISO 70 levels and information for smooth air and fuel icing (HIWC) awareness. Additionally, pilots have access to data regarding airport weather information whilst in-flight. Each piece of data is updated and clearly marked to the pilot with information advising them as to how long the data is valid for, how long ago the data was received and when the next report is due.”
Outside of investments in connectivity, many Asia Pacific region carriers have also been preparing for the International Civil Aviation Organization's (ICAO) 2021 autonomous distress tracking requirement to take effect. All aircraft with type certification later than Jan. 1, 2021, weighing more than 60,000 pounds and capable of transporting more than nineteen passengers must feature the ability to autonomously transmit aircraft position reports minute-by-minute when flying with conditions considered to be life-threatening to passengers and flight crews onboard.
The ADT requirement becomes applicable in 2021 under changes to the Global Aeronautics Distress Safety System (GADSS) that ICAO first adopted to its Annex 6 aircraft operating standards and recommended practices in 2016.
Meanwhile, civil aviation regulators are adopting that ICAO airworthiness standard as individually interpreted mandates. Asia Pacific region civil aviation authorities have been much more active in implementing GADSS-driven aircraft tracking mandates than their North American counterparts. The Civil Aviation Authority of Singapore published Advisory Circular AC AOC-38(1), a nine-page document that provides information about how airlines regulated by CAAS can comply with their November 2018 adoption of ICAO’s 15-minute tracking rule.
South Korea’s Office of Civil Aviation (KOCA) has also enacted new position reporting requirements that it does not make publicly available.
Blair Cowles, regional director for safety and flight operations for the Asia Pacific division of the International Air Transportation Association (IATA), said the airlines represented by his organization in the region are still awaiting more clarity on specific equipage requirements, if any.
“The next phase of the Global Aeronautical Distress and Safety System (GADSS) is scheduled for January 2021,” Cowles said. “We are aware that ICAO is seeking information from States on their understanding and readiness via a survey. Airlines will not know fully the requirements until after the discussions at ICAO following the survey. The challenge will be if airlines are faced with inconsistent implementation and timing of changes.”