Brian Wilson outlines some overlooked aspects of on-board connectivity, and considers why a low-cost system is no longer an acceptable solution in Business Aviation.
The Oxford Dictionary describes addiction in an adjective form as identifying someone who is “physically dependent on a particular substance”. A recent study found the average person checks their smartphone or tablet 150 times a day for messaging, voice calls, email traffic, internet access or what time it is. Considering only the hours we are awake, it’s safe to assume we look at our device every six minutes. Not even the bathroom is a safe haven from using our cellphones!
We are addicted to staying in touch, and today it is no different when we board an aircraft. Passengers do more than anticipate connectivity; they demand it!
Passenger In-Flight Expectations
Many of us remember the days when meals were served on board all airline flights in economy class. It’s a safe bet that no one expected the same culinary experience as they’d get from a 3-star Michelin-rated restaurant, though, so surely passengers today would not expect the same connectivity experience flying 500MPH at 35,000 feet as they would seated in their home or office? Wrong! Passenger feedback has been challenging at best.
Passenger expectations when compared with the limitations in today’s technology suggest the industry had better do a better job in educating the consumer.
I would advocate that after the passenger safety video is completed a short usage video be played outlining expectations for connectivity.
Let’s focus on two technologies that enable the majority of the business jets flying today with connectivity:
• Air to Ground (ATG)
• Satellite based Swift Broadband (SBB)
Air to Ground: A network of towers is strategically based across the continental United States, Alaska and the southern populace areas of Canada. The towers beam the signals upward in a shape of cones that overlap each other to provide seamless coverage to the aircraft. Antennas mounted on the belly of the aircraft communicate directly with the towers once the aircraft reaches an altitude of 10,000 feet.
There are no satellites involved with ATG, which allows this technology to have the fastest connectivity speed today averaging 2Mbps and peaking at 3.1Mpbs (based on Internet congestion).
Swift Broadband: Working with a network of Satellites based 22,000 miles above the earth, SBB coverage is almost global, with the exception of the extreme north and south latitudes. The satellites beam their signal downward and communicate with an antenna mounted on the top of the fuselage or tail cone. This technology works when the aircraft is on the ground, and it does not have the 10,000 feet limitation of ATG.
Stated data speeds of 200, 332 and 432 Kbps and their respective global coverage areas vary according to the size of the antenna on the aircraft. Connectivity speeds can be increased by using a router capable of data compression or by bonding multiple channels of SBB.
Both ATG and SBB systems allow passengers to text, make voice calls, surf the internet and check their email. Limitations in the technology and the speed for which the data are transferred will have a variable effect on the following:
• Email attachments over 10Mb
• Live video- and Internet-based streaming services
• Social media
• Graphically intense web-based home pages
• Network congestion.
Passengers should be cautioned that using streaming video services or social media will not only frustrate their user experience, but the consumption of bandwidth will negatively affect everyone on board.
Maximizing Charter Revenue
Speak to any aircraft owner who offers their aircraft for charter operations and you will hear varying expectations about offsetting operating costs, perceived utilization rates and monthly fees when using a management company. Speak to any charter or management company and you will only hear one common message: if your aircraft does not have connectivity on-board, expect to see it sitting on the ground!
The paradigm shift started about five years ago in 2010. Prior to that date, flight departments continued to believe the passengers in the cabin just wanted to relax, and enjoyed being away from email, voice calls and the internet. Today, passengers are refusing to board aircraft if the Wi-Fi is down or the aircraft does not have internet access.
Crew members frequently report the first question they are asked by passengers before they board as “Is the internet working?” Passengers will usually tolerate minor cabin discrepancies but they will not live without connectivity. They expect Wi-Fi to be on board the aircraft in the same way they expect to have it when entering a hotel, airport or coffee shop.
Furthermore, pilots have become the first line of technical support between their home-base and the passengers. Applications loaded on their phones or tablets allow the crew to at least confirm if the Wi-Fi is available and if a connection can be made.
A typical management company relies heavily on its charter division to bolster ancillary income for themselves and the client. This usually begins with a meeting between the two parties to understand what the owners want and to discuss their expectations. Keeping the aircraft mission-capable will surely lead to a discussion about connectivity. Many charter companies have lost trips due to a bad passenger experience using the Wi-Fi, or insufficient cabin technology.
If you take anything from this section of the article, remember the following: Passengers want the same connectivity experience that they receive at home or in the office, and if you choose to offer your aircraft for charter, but install an inexpensive system that only allows text messaging; simple emails without attachments; no internet; and a short list of applications, your aircraft [or your client’s aircraft] will sit on the tarmac!
Best Equipped, First Sold
Adding connectivity to your aircraft also allows you to keep it ahead of the competition in the event that you plan to sell it. Aircraft that do not have connectivity onboard, or offer cheap systems will witness a similar effect to its resale value as a home in a neighborhood adjacent to a garbage dump!
Most flight departments allocate funds every year to keep the aircraft current with the latest technologies, but the focus can easily be swayed by the needs of the crew in the cockpit. The cabin has become the focal point over the last few years, and prospective buyers want to know what technology is onboard to keep them productive in-flight. The following points will assist you in an upgrade:
• Understand what cabin technologies are currently onboard;
• Sit down with the owner and passengers to understand their expectations;
• Does the aircraft fly domestically, internationally or both;
• Attend a leading industry event like NBAA, EBACE, ABACE or LABACE to discover more about the products available;
• Research and choose three different products that fit both your flight profile and passenger expectations;
• Discuss the upgrade with three leading MROs that focus on cabin connectivity, and solicit proposals for the work scope;
• Choose the company you feel the most comfortable with after checking references, and schedule the upgrade at your next maintenance interval.
Costly Monthly Service Fees
The excitement of having internet onboard quickly dissipates when the first monthly service bill arrives. Earlier plans offered unlimited usage for a fixed monthly price, but individual consumption of data has risen dramatically during the past few years and service providers can no longer absorb the extra costs.
Service plans offered today allow you to choose an option that gives you a set amount of data for a set price each month. Once that data threshold is exceeded, you are subject to ‘overage’ costs (usually based on a per Megabyte amount).
It’s imperative that flight departments educate crew and passengers on how to control costs.
Most people today carry multiple devices and have their Wi-Fi always activated searching for an open network. Once they board the aircraft these devices will automatically log onto the server and background data will start to run. It’s easy for 5-6 passengers to have 15-18 devices consuming data, and that doesn’t factor in the crew!
Laminated user guides are common on board to assist passengers with how to use the system. I recommend adding a section highlighting how to control the usage of data that will result in lower monthly costs…
• Turn the Wi-Fi “off” on the devices you’re not currently using;
• Avoid streaming services;
• Reduce social media site visits;
• Prohibit any software or program updates;
• Filter out Cloud applications.
Service costs are the most overlooked part of the upgrade process. Much time is spent searching the right product and installation facility, yet service costs can equal or exceed the installation price in as little as 18 months. When discussing the plan options with your chosen service provider, ask what control filters they possess to help keep your costs down.
Today we think of connectivity as a conduit for the internet, email and texting. Moving forward this technology will evolve within the aircraft to encompass everything, including in-flight entertainment, environmental controls, on-board system diagnostics, databases, engines and emergency medical events. Owners and operators must keep their aircraft “enabled” so their current and prospective new clients don’t view it as “disabled”.