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A review of communications equipment for the aircraft cabin

By John Brodeur

Aircraft cabin productivity is best summarized as allowing passengers to continue working on their business projects and proposals in-flight- while being in real-time contact with the office. Today’s equipment is designed to enable true connectivity with the ground while on a business trip- thereby providing voice communications- Internet and email access along with the use of monitors to review and work on presentations.

For the busy executive or entrepreneur- the syncing of the office to wherever they may be in the world has been an essential aspect of Business Aviation. After all- the aircraft is also an extension of the office which allows a company to maximize the productivity of its executives during periods away from home.

Following is an overview designed to give a brief- but not comprehensive taste of what is available for a business aircraft cabin enabling the company employees to be as productive as possible while traveling.

Generally three areas could be covered in such an overview- including Communication- Data Transference and Situational Awareness. Communication has always been the most important of the three categories- and airborne communication has been around for some time now.

Initially it was limited to central areas of the United States- before being expanded to include all of North America. Today- with satellite communications- coverage is truly global.

We tend to talk about Communication and Data Transference in the same breath- since most suppliers in the cabin communications market offer both solutions through one unit.

Meanwhile- being aware of what is happening around us at any given time is important for everybody. Vital situations can change within minutes- even seconds - therefore Situational Awareness can offer an advantageous edge over your business competitors.

Situational Awareness
Monitors are a huge part of productivity in the cabin since they can be utilized not only for presentation- but also situational awareness with moving map and television systems.

If you already own a business jet- a major advantage of installing a newer- larger monitor during the next cabin upgrade can be enjoyed through weight-reduction on the aircraft (freeing up more weight allowance for fuel or passenger transportation)- since flat-screen displays tend to be lighter than the older- bulkier monitors being replaced.

Of primary importance for passengers- however- is that larger monitors display presentations far better. At any level it is much easier on the eye to utilize a larger screen. Different displays are offered by several companies- including Airshow- Flight Display Systems- Honeywell Aerospace and Rockwell Collins- and can range from five inches to 52-inches or more.

In addition- Honeywell provides an effective airborne communication and data connectivity solution through its MCS-7000 Series and Gateway Satellite Communication systems. Situational awareness is provided by the JetMap II Airshow system- which also provides live news- stocks- weather and other updates.

Communication/Data Transference
Whether considering telephone connection- internet connection- email or fax- the speed of connection and geographic reach of such communications systems have improved and expanded enormously over recent years- thanks to the sophistication of satellite-based technology.

At the start of the Millennium- for example- ICG expanded to airborne communication and hasn’t looked back since- supplying to airplane manufacturers including Bombardier- Dassault- Falcon- Embraer and Gulfstream. ICG has developed Sora- which seamlessly integrates Iridium and Inmarsat satellite systems when required.

The Sora system consists of a dual transceiver capable of connecting directly to the cockpit- and to the cabin for voice and data communications. The system also has a Server permitting Wi-Fi capable devices (such as a Blackberry or iPhone) to access internet services.

Rockwell Collins- meantime- provides eXchange - also allowing for Blackberry use. eXchange works with the user’s smart phone- laptop or Wi-Fi enabling the user to remain connected to email- the internet and the company VPN. By utilizing satellite-based connections- the user can remain connected from ground to take-off- and for the duration of the flight to almost anywhere in the world.

Coupled with Rockwell Collins’ Venue cabin control system- eXchange can be used to display PowerPoint presentations on cabin monitors instead of everyone needing to huddle over one laptop during an in-flight presentation- while another of Venue’s strong features is its high-definition distribution.

Further- Satcom Direct provides services for both Iridium and Inmarsat users. It’s a wonderful thing to have all the latest communications and data connectivity- but being unable to use it- or not being able to contact your service provider will not assist in your productivity. Satcom Direct’s sole business is to handle your communication and connectivity requirements.

The Cell Phone Question
You may notice that one important aspect of productivity-enhancing cabin equipment is missing from this discussion: Use of your personal cell phone in flight. The technology has been developed to allow for this- but the problem lies in the control.

Cell phone signals can travel long distances by line of sight- thus creating interference with cell phones on the ground that are using the same signal. There have also been discussions about cell phones causing interference with cockpit avionics- but that has yet to be proven. Today’s modern avionics must be shielded from interference problems in order to be certified.

The reality is that no one knows how to charge for the calls- since the signals are bouncing everywhere from one base station to another. Look for eventual developments in this arena. It’s incredibly fast-moving.

Key considerations for Cabin Connectivity
While the scope of this article only touches on a sampling of what is available for the busy executive/entrepreneur in their business jet cabin- there is a far larger selection of products to select from. The aircraft owner must research thoroughly which is the most useful to satisfy his or her own needs.

Two major considerations exist regardless of the product:

First- be sure the product you wish to buy is designed to function within the regions you fly. Imagine the frustration of investing in your new ‘Office in the Sky’ only to find it does not function as expected for the greater percentage of your business trips because you regularly travel outside of the coverage area. For Asia- Inmarsat and Iridium provide full global coverage- while SITA- Yonder and OneView provide only partial coverage.

Second- be sure the product you are considering is designed for the aircraft you fly in. Some systems are heavy and large enough only to give productivity to larger business aircraft cabins. Equipment manufacturers are consistently downsizing products for smaller aircraft cabins - so if the initial product you review isn’t the correct fit for you- it’s worth researching further.

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