What are the steps to take, and facts to know that will ensure your next jet cabin connectivity upgrade goes smoothly, without surprises? Dave Higdon speaks with industry expert Brian Wilson…
A few years ago, your company's business aircraft received an upgrade to provide the passengers with in-flight connectivity. The system provided modest connectivity speeds, in-flight Wi-Fi for a small number of users, and possibly limited and expensive streaming capabilities.
The executives were wowed, their traveling companions awed and the flight crew happy to have another tool to use in their virtual flight bags.
That was then. Today, the current system's limitations constrain the passengers from enjoying the full benefits available from such systems. The current connectivity solution didn't go bad. It simply got surpassed by the unrelenting, never-ending advance of technology.
What was once a state-of-the-art system is now showing its age and technological shortcomings, such as narrow bandwidth, slow connectivity and limited connection capacity.
When new, the people traveling on the company airplane used the system sparingly, chastened by warnings of high access charges and the penalizing expense of overages. Now those regular users are lobbying the flight department to bring the cabin connectivity up to speed and capable of keeping up with evolving demand.
In response, the Director of Maintenance consults with the regular users to develop a clear picture of their cabin connectivity wants and needs. Next, he contacts experts in the field – both those who supplied the current system, and those offering alternative connectivity solutions.
If some of what those experts tell you sounds familiar, that shouldn’t come as a surprise. The processes involved in understanding the options for a first system closely parallel the process of understanding the upgrade issues.
Jet Connectivity: Knowledge and Understanding are Key
Making an upgrade as trouble free as possible hinges on most of the same points that help make an original installation trouble-free. Today there are many more options than there were a few years ago, making the selection process much more complex.
Helping whittle down the selection, you should consider where you predominantly fly. Do many flights take place over the sea, or on land? If so, on which continent? If your flights are mixed over-ground or over-water, you’ll need to consider a hybrid system.
Even if the aircraft size allows for use of a satellite-based system, a hybrid system with a ground-based-connectivity option can save on connection costs over land.
If, however, overwater international ops aren't in the equation, a system like the ground-based network of SmarkSky Networks and Gogo AVANCE L5 can more than deliver at lower costs to install, own and use.
Gogo Business Aviation's Brian Wilson noted that aircraft adaptability may allow the installation of bigger, better and faster – but at what cost for better access, more bandwidth and added streaming fees.
The goal is ultimately to keep surprises to a minimum, if not wholly absent from the process. But it’s beyond the technological specifications that the surprises can occur. The consensus among in-flight connectivity experts is that it’s in the contract’s fine print where the most-common, most-expensive and unhappy surprises are most-likely to emerge.
The best hope for avoiding problems begins by understanding the complexities of the contract and the hardware-installation challenges. Both can stymie an otherwise smooth, trouble-free process. Let’s start with the cabin.
Jet Connectivity Installation/Interior Surprises
Wilson and many others approach the issue from the following perspective: “I've got a few ways to look at this,” he explains. “A trouble-free upgrade has to anticipate some surprises. To start, it's best to anticipate the surprises.”
Vendors provide all their prospects a quote for the project – the hardware, installation and approvals. “Quotes never include interior removal and replacement,” Wilson adds, “at least a majority of the time they don’t.
“We'll put the upgrade in, but in the fine print the quote notes that interior removal and replacement is not included. We do that because there's such a wide variety of interiors.”
Wilson says that today so many interiors are unique, making it almost impossible to estimate the removal challenges until the installation crew is in the aircraft. Damage risks, for example, loom large. “If the interior removal results in a scratch on an interior panel, a side panel or piece of wood-finished trim, there's no way to anticipate that damage – or the costs of repairing or replacing the damaged article.”
Removal and replacement adds to the wear-and-tear for the items handled – and the installation work can add wear to carpeting and upholstery. Typically, the interior removal and re-installation involves nothing more than labor since no parts are planned for replacement.
But it’s best to be prepared for the unexpected.
Jet Connectivity Service Surprises
When one of the reasons for the upgrade includes better, increased streaming, another surprise looms when the service invoices arrive. Wilson offered, “People are installing our Gogo AVANCE L5 system which has the capability to stream entertainment. We urge clients to use our on board Gogo Vision service for movies and TV shows. This helps them control their service costs.”
Streaming charges, whether by units of time or megabytes of data, are directly linked to how many people use the system – and how much they stream. The more streaming that’s consumed, the higher the bill. And so far, there are no ‘unlimited plans’ for streaming.
Several company engineers note that if the old system limited streaming, the bills were never likely to surprise the accounts department.
“When everyone on board can stream, from when the door closes before takeoff to when it lands, the bills can be breathtaking,” one operator's avionics technician noted. “Usually the system offers a way to restrict streaming, whether the number of users or by limiting use overall. That's the best way to control the bills.”
Jet Connectivity: Hard Numbers for Software Updates
When the new system needs to interface with existing equipment a software update may be required. That need may not have been apparent when the quote was being developed or may have only been released since the connectivity upgrade process began.
It’s best to be prepared for the potential costs of software updates, which may run into five figures, Wilson observed, along with additional cost for the labor time involved in overseeing loading the software and checking that it functions properly once installed.
It’s best to keep an open mind (and wallet) for this contingency.
Jet Connectivity: Location can be Expensive
In terms of the hardware, “The placement of an antenna can prompt a deviation from the certification standard for the airplane and require FAA approval,” Wilson adds. “Deviations to the certification standards are routine – I've never done an installation without several deviations from the STC allowing installation.
“But that leaves you needing a deviation approval (a designated engineering representative) to draw up the deviation request, new sheet-metal work, and the FAA's approval.”
These all cost and are seldom simple and easy. “Be prepared to deal with several and you won't be surprised,” he advises.
Ultimately, the system you choose for your upgrade needs to match what the passengers want to do; how they’re planning to use it.
The best approach is to get quotes for several levels of service, several levels of bandwidth use, and the variable numbers of hours used to get a broad view of how much use will cost.
“And make sure you know the true data costs because users almost always underestimate the cost of that streaming,” Wilson concludes. “If you walk through those steps, I assure you you'll walk out with a satisfactory system.”