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The Flying Hotspot: Enabling Gate-to-Gate Connectivity

Connectivity providers and airlines are investing in enabling previously impossible gate-to-gate Wi-Fi, but is technology still standing in the way of widespread adoption?

The number of connected commercial aircraft is expected to grow from 5,300 in 2015 to 23,100 aircraft by 2025, accounting for 62 percent of the global fleet, according to Eurconsult’s latest “Prospects for In-Flight Entertainment and Connectivity” report. Meanwhile, revenues from passenger In-Flight Connectivity (IFC) will skyrocket from an estimated $700 million in 2015 to nearly $5.4 billion by 2025, a 23 percent Compound Annual Growth Rate (CAGR) over the 10-year period. But passenger demand for connectivity across the skies is growing not just in number, but also in availability throughout flight, as passengers progressively expect to be connected from the second they step on the aircraft, to the moment they step off.

“It is becoming increasingly important for passengers to expect to be connected without interruption. Losing connection, even if for a few minutes, represent lost productivity or staying in touch with loved ones. It is becoming more important for airlines as they certainly want to satisfy the passenger, but having the passengers always connected also increases engagement and loyalty and expands the brand,” notes Doug Murri, vice president of operations at Global Eagle Entertainment (GEE), an In-Flight Connectivity (IFC) service provider that enables gate-to-gate Wi-Fi onboard Southwest Airlines and Icelandair.

GEE began deploying gate-to-gate connectivity onboard Southwest’s fleet in 2013 and signed a contract to enable the capability onboard Icelandair’s fleet in February 2016. The company isn’t alone in offering the capability, as satellite service provider ViaSat launched gate-to-gate connectivity onboard JetBlue’s fleet earlier this year.

As of yet, only a few airlines worldwide to have deployed the gate-to-gate capability, but with increasing amounts of satellite-enabled bandwidth coming online with the advent of High-Throughput Satellite (HTS) systems, airlines are beginning to investigate how this tech can revolutionize their passenger and operational connectivity offerings. As bandwidth and current technology restrictions stand in the way of widespread adoption, we explore some of the current models and how growing networks and new tech can expand the reach of “always on” IFC.

Raising Regulations Enables Advancement

Regulatory challenges in the United States previously limited the use of passenger Personal Electronic Devices (PEDs) below 10,000 feet. But a regulatory shift from the FAA in October 2013 lifted the ban and expanded use of PEDs to all phases of flight for airlines, allowing passengers to use smartphones, tablets, e-readers and other electronic items from gate-to-gate, barring takeoff when all items must be stowed in the seat-back pocket to comply with safety regulations.

Southwest aircraft reflected in gate windows.Courtesy of Southwest Airlines

“With some of our shorter flights, if we were only operating above 10,000 feet, Wi-Fi service would only be available for a brief amount of time. By still complying with regulations, we are excited that customers have the opportunity to make the best of their travel time with us as soon as they board the airplane,” says Southwest’s Head of In-Flight Entertainment, Tara Bamburg.

Due to these regulations, many Wi-Fi systems installed on aircraft prior to 2013 don’t support gate-to-gate connectivity, which means that many airlines, particularly in the U.S. where airlines flocked to install Wi-Fi systems early, will have to upgrade equipment in order to incorporate connectivity during all phases of flight. Certain service providers, such as ViaSat, did design systems that could enable gate-to-gate Wi-Fi even before regulations supported it.

“The ViaSat satellite-based system was designed to support service both on the ground and throughout the flight from the very beginning, but airlines were previously limited to in-air service above 10,000 feet by Federal regulations,” explains Don Buchman, vice president and general manager of commercial mobility at ViaSat. “Now that those regulations have been removed, some of ViaSat’s airline customers are able to provide its Wi-Fi service gate-to-gate.”

ViaSat provides the FlyFi satellite connectivity service to JetBlue, and Buchman notes that connectivity solutions such as Air to Ground (ATG) “are not suited to provide gate-to-gate services.”

Recent satellite networks that look to service the IFC market are expanding possibilities in this realm, such as Gogo’s 2Ku service and Inmarsat’s Global Xpress (GX) Aviation high-speed satellite network, as well as satellites coming online in the near future, such as ViaSat 2, which promises to deliver even more capacity for IFC.

“People think of reliability being binary, it’s either on or off. With the current state of in-flight Wi-Fi, there is a lot of bad press around some of the carriers that can’t support constant connectivity. They aren’t unreliable, their connection is on, but they don’t have enough capacity to support the connection. So connectivity is more about whether the capacity can support the demand that is being asked of it,” said Buchman, emphasizing that increased satellite connectivity is what can deliver this capacity need.

In fact, Bamburg, notes that Southwest, which currently has approximately 600 aircraft enabled to support gate-to-gate connectivity — representing nearly 80 percent of its fleet — originally chose Global Eagle as their IFC provider due to its satellite offering.

“Global Eagle Entertainment, formerly Row 44, has been our connectivity provider for several years now. One of the reasons we selected them initially was due to their satellite-based product, allowing for gate-to-gate to become a reality, especially when restrictions were lifted on using smaller personal devices below 10,000 feet,” says Bamburg.

Equipment Challenges Limiting Equipage

Equipment challenges still exist for the technology however, particularly in upgrading or replacing systems already installed on aircraft that don’t support gate-to-gate Wi-Fi.

“The primary reason that other airlines are holding off is due to the technology,” says Murri. “Other solutions were either not designed to operate below 10,000 feet, or have technical limitations that prevent usage, such as coverage or overheating. Secondarily is that the airline requires approval and some airport and telecom authorities outside the United States prohibit or require licensing.”

Bamburg notes that even with systems that are equipped, certain obstacles still limit the signal on the ground.

“Providing service on the ground requires the satellite signal to travel an additional 35,000 feet than normal. The signal is more susceptible to obstacles, such as weather and other planes, potentially causing the signal to drop,” she says.

Moreover, for Icelandair, the first airline outside of North America to equip with gate-to-gate connectivity, while it has regulatory approval to operate electronics below 10,000 feet and GEE’s system didn’t require an upgrade in order to equip for constant connectivity, the airline did need to run a number of time-consuming tests in order to withstand safety and certification standards.

“All aircraft configurations had to be surveyed for flight critical avionics equipment. All equipment had to be tested to show immunity to Wi-Fi frequencies. This was a considerable challenge, took a long time, and complicated the configuration management of avionics equipment. The STC process for the Boeing 757-200/-300 aircraft took much longer than anticipated,” says Gudmunder Oskarsson, director of marketing and business development at Icelandair.

Icelandair cabinCourtesy of Icelandair

The airline, which has 27 aircraft connected, is still experiencing some growing pains, including gaps in connectivity that result from shadowing from buildings and aircraft tails. Oskarsson notes that Icelandair will have to re-wire the system to ensure it stays powered during engine start.

Next Steps: How Gate-to-Gate can Improve Operations

While most airlines have not yet deployed systems that can take advantage of gate-to-gate connectivity to improve cockpit operations, Southwest is a notable exception. The airline has received approval to use Electronic Flight Bags (EFBs) in the cockpit during all phases of flight and is using the connectivity primarily for real-time weather updates and charting capabilities. Accessing this information at all times aims to improve the pilot’s weather awareness, which can lead to more efficient operations and a smoother ride for passengers.

“Satellite-based gate-to-gate connectivity enables high-fidelity transmission of position, health and cabin data from air to ground, creating real-time links between an airline’s fleet and its operational managers. Additionally, these satellite-based real-time links enable two-way messaging and communication between airplanes and ground-based platforms, applications and operational managers,” said Murri. “This enables airlines to focus on using real-time information to improve the passenger experience, increase pilot and cabin crew productivity, decrease costs of flight operations and maintenance, repair and overhaul.”

GEE has also laid out several services that aim to maximize the availability of gate-to-gate connectivity for aircraft operations. GEE recently announced the real-time integration of connected aircraft data streams with its masFlight airline operations data platform, which now features real-time flight tracking and satellite-transmitted surveillance data for operational analytics. Moreover, with the integration of this real-time data, the company can enable real-time aircraft monitoring. Through information from Aircraft Interface Devices (AID) or communication links, the company can enable real-time access to three dimensional flight tracks, maintenance information that can support aircraft health monitoring, and environmental data.

“Whether the aircraft is on the ground or in the air, airlines will want access to the data coming off of their aircraft. There’s a possibility for operational connectivity with some obvious opportunities with maintenance data, passenger manifests, and automating the inventory of the drink cart. But there are new elements we haven’t thought of yet, and it’s about dictating where real-time data can help create a more reliable airline, a more efficient airline, at all times,” says ViaSat’s Buchman. GCA