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An entertaining series of television ads for a popular theme park puts forth a verifiable premise: Americans work more hours and take less vacation time than citizens of any other modern- industrialized- First World nation.

Dave Higdon   |   1st April 2005
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Dave Higdon Dave Higdon

Dave Higdon writes about aviation from his base in Wichita Kansas. During three decades in...
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Staying connected: Cabin comm equipment makes in-flight as efficient as in-office

An entertaining series of television ads for a popular theme park puts forth a verifiable premise: Americans work more hours and take less vacation time than citizens of any other modern- industrialized- First World nation.

While that may be true- it’s not a new phenomenon for executives of the nation’s top companies. In fact- for decades leaders of the Fortune 500 firms have sought tools that improve their efficiency – that allow them to eke the most out of every hour in the hopes of clearing time for some hours away.

Hence the popularity of corporate aircraft among the majority of these businesses. Time is money- and money is the mother’s milk of busy executives. Time saved by taking the company plane and avoiding the airlines can be quantified and counted as surely as units on an assembly line. It’s no wonder- then- that advances in digital processing and global communications have helped push the corporate aircraft beyond its efficiency as a people mover to a new level of effectiveness as a mobile office.

From the advent of the earliest business flying some seven decades ago- armed with the usual briefcase full of reports to read- proposals to peruse or statistics to scan- busy executives adapted work habits that made the most of the sitting time between wheels up and engine shut down.

When the first FliteFones started showing up in business aircraft four decades ago- executives gained a new tool for staying in touch even when on the move. The folks in the office could actually reach out and touch the boss almost at will.

Down on the ground- the business office quickly adapted to new developments- cell phones- the Internet and company Intranets- high-speed global networks and live video that connects workers across vast spans of time and distance like nothing before.

Over the course of time- virtually every communications and office tool available at the home office can now be fitted into an aerial office so that those busy executive road warriors can work seamlessly from office to limo to aircraft cabin and back again. After all- it’s impossible to get more time out of a 24-hour day; the least a company can do is make it possible for its executives to get the most out of the hours they have- regardless of their state of motion.

Top of the pack

'Why'- a marketing executive at NBAA 2004 asked rhetorically- 'should a major investment like a business jet get away with being only transportation? There’s only so much reading and writing an executive can do – and nothing stands still between the boss leaving the office and returning.'

Apparently those executives – and their board bosses – tend to agree- with In-Flight Office gear among the hottest items in the business aviation toolkit.

Virtually every major corporate aircraft manufacturer offers systems that turn the back cabin into a high-speed mobile office with high-speed access – instead of merely a speedy human conveyance.

Modern satellite-based broadband communications platforms provide the connection between the ground-based World Wide Web and the corporate and commercial aircraft soaring high overhead. At basics- these systems use an airframe-mounted antenna that can keep itself aimed at a compatible communications satellite. The antenna serves as the two-way link between the satellite and a central hub mounted in the aircraft that links on-board computers to the Internet system on the ground.

As these systems have evolved in recent years- data transfer speeds have increased to speeds comparable to DSL or cable connections from speeds barely faster than ground-based dial-up connections.

Similarly- the amount of traffic these systems can accommodate has also grown. For example- at last fall’s NBAA meeting Gulfstream demonstrated the effectiveness of its retrofitable Broad Band Multi-Link high-speed Internet gateway installed in a GV. With connections speeds of 3.5 megabits per second (mbps)- the BBML backbone offers users access comparable to a ground-based cable-modem system.

The SkyLink service developed by Arinc Direct claims to be more than 10 times faster than another popular system. Gulfstream itself guarantees download speeds of at least 512 kbps- and upload speeds of at least 128 kbps - with typical speeds running from 700 kbps to more than 1 mbps.

The system supports wireless connections between laptop computers and the LAN hardware installed in the aircraft- giving users maximum flexibility for their business surfing. For more information visit www.gulfstream.com.

Not to be outdone by new competition- longtime airborne-internet provider EMS Technologies is offering its new HSD-400 satcom data terminal. This unit supports four channels of Inmarsat’s Swift64 or SwiftBroadband service for data speeds of up to 432 kbps – a huge jump from the 64 kbps speeds of older Inmarsat-based systems. The new backbone will also support video conferencing- Virtual Private Network and airborne cellular phone use when it becomes available.

The Atlanta-based company expects to activate 14 new satellites next year that will provide the highest speed available on their system. The new birds will also allow users of its existing HSD-128 data terminal to install a software and hardware upgrade to receive a new- higher data capacity of 256 kbps by combining four channels of 64 kbps data transfer.

With more than 300 HSD-128 units installed- EMS’s upgrade path will please a lot of CFOs- happy that their airborne investment remains a valuable- useful asset. See www.ems-t.com for more information.

Growth in the offing

With Boeing’s Connexion service- Arinc and Inmarset in the field and more to come- it’s no small wonder that the service providers are gearing up to handle a crush of new customers.

Inmarsat- alone- plans to launch 14 new satellites in 2006- all to support the company’s new SwiftBroadBand service and give existing users more capability with their older Swift64 backbones.

In reality- SwiftBroadBand actually serves as a two-in-one-network by simultaneously supporting voice and ISDN – plus- on top of that- packet data- too. Best of all for users- Inmarsat’s new SwiftBroadBand hardware will provide the same level of ‘always on’ connection many of us enjoy on our ground-based DSL and Cable Modem networks.

Even though Inmarsat is spending about $1.6 billion on the SwiftBroadBand satellites- the old users will still be able to use the same antennas and high-power amplifiers they use now to access the existing Swift64 system. And since Inmarsat plans to keep its Swift64 service on and available after SwiftBroadBand comes online- existing Swift64 customers will be able to pick which service to use- as well as a voice connection.

More growth can be expected for the Connexion Internet service thanks to the folks at Rockwell Collins busy designing hardware that will let Boeing’s hardware work on mid-size and large-cabin jets where the 737-scale antenna won’t work. So- in partnership with Boeing- Rockwell Collins is designing new antenna systems with an eye toward fitting them on Bombardier’s Global Express- the larger Falcons and other super-mid-size and mid-size business jets.

This partnership- eXchange- puts Rockwell Collins in place as the exclusive marketer of the Connexion hardware and service for clients with the jet sizes below the BBJ and 737 models.

Rockwell Collins already makes an antenna of suitable size to support in-flight satellite television. But the higher demand of in-flight data exchange means the antenna must be more accurate- more precisely aimed and better able to track a satellite – even when maneuvering.

One thing seems sure: Rockwell Collins and Boeing see a major market for Connexion in the large-cabin- super-mid and mid-size business jet fleets. More information from www.rockwellcollins.com.

The same can be said for Honeywell and Thales Avionics- who offer the new HS-702 high-speed data communications system- a platform which supports up to 128-kbps data connections as well as voice and fax capability. Adding the HS-700/702 to a Honeywell/Thales MCS-4000 or MCS-7000 satcom system gives buyers the choice of using two independent 64 kbps data channels or linking the two channels together into a 128 kbps link.

The HS-700/702 provides access to nine channels when used with the seven-channel MCS-7000 satcom system- providing support for telephone- fax- Web browsing- e-mail and videoconferencing.

Honeywell and Thales introduced their first high-speed data terminal- the HS-600- in 2002. Able to deliver two-way connections at speeds of 64 kbps- the HS-600 terminal can be integrated with any Honeywell/ Thales satcom system- from the MCS-3000 and MCS-4000 to the higher-end MCS-6000 and MCS-7000 units.

Customers who purchase the HS-600 or HS-700 data systems can also opt for the NSU-4 network server- which provides higher transfer rates- the ability to access to corporate Virtual Private Networks and wireless network backbones. Find out more from www.honeywell.com

That’s entertainment

Not every minute spent in a corporate aircraft can be filled with work- since even the most efficient- dedicated executive eventually needs a break. For those times – for the benefit of those not working – in-flight entertainment systems bring the world of satellite television to the back cabin.

Systems vary according to the size and design of the cabin- with some built around a single large flat-panel display while others employ smaller screens mounted at club seating areas or for individual seats.

In general terms- these systems employ an antenna that captures the signal from the appropriate satellite and routes the signal to a receiver that decodes it and feeds the selected channel to the display screen. To keep the connection working as the aircraft crosses the sky- the antenna must somehow track the satellite. Some systems employ a moveable dish faired into the airframe. That dish moves to track the satellite.

Other systems work off a so-called phased array antenna that has no moving parts. These antennae are generally flat- thin and somewhat long – but can be mounted directly in the airflow on the airframe. Since this type of antenna doesn’t move mechanically- it electronically focuses itself on the satellite to maintain the signal strength needed to unscramble the digital code into audio and video. And the growing field of equipment and program suppliers offers a variety of services.

The Airshow system now owned by Rockwell Collins is one such system available to a growing list of corporate aircraft. Airshow 4000 is capable of handling a wide variety of multimedia feeds- including audio- video- moving-map graphics and text for display in both the cabin and the flight deck. The moving-map/navigation display- for example- employs information from an aircraft’s long-range sensors and displays appropriate maps and flight information- as well as news- stock prices- sports and weather.

Collins also offers BBC News programming over the Airshow 4000 system under a contract with the British network. This linkage allows clients to select from 16 different categories of international news and even create custom profiles for different users.

Among the categories available are World News- Africa- the Americas- Asia-Pacific- Europe- Middle East- South Asia- UK- UK politics- business- science/nature- technology- health- education- sports and international sports. And the BBC feed is on top of other feeds available via the Airshow 4000 system that includes Bloomberg News- CNN- SportsTicker- The Wall Street Journal- WSI Inflight and Intellicast weather.

A specialist in in-flight entertainment gear- Flight Display Systems- recently unveiled its new solution for corporate aircraft under the banner- Ellipse Direct (www.ellipsedirect.com). Unlike many of the systems available before- Ellipse Direct can be fitted into a variety of corporate aircraft that includes most light jets and propjets.

The Ellipse Direct hardware works with the popular DirecTV digital-satellite service through a mechanically steered antenna mounted in a radome mounted about 14 inches above the fuselage. Inside a satellite TV receiver and remote control provide an output that can work on a wide variety of display monitors.

The Ellipse Direct hardware also allows the selection of two different channels simultaneously allowing two different programs to play in two or more displays.

One of the strongest aspects of FDS’s pitch for Ellipse Direct is its cost: just under $100-000- plus a display and installation (estimated at about 100 hours). Another strength for the product is its flexibility. According to FDS- Ellipse Direct can be fitted on aircraft ranging from the Cessna Caravan and Pilatus PC-12 single-propjets to the full range of Citations- Challengers- Falcons- Globals- Gulfstreams- Hawkers and beyond.

Ellipse Direct can deliver any service or package available to ground customers of DirecTV – up to and including dedicated news- sports or movie packages and pay-per-view programming. Pricing is generally in line with what home consumers pay for comparable service.

Even farther down the price scale are more self-contained IFE systems – that is- lacking satellite capability. Stevens Aviation in North Carolina is enjoying success from the recent rollout of its Elite In-Flight Customized Entertainment package – a system promoted for its simplicity and low cost.

The basic elements are a CD- DVD- MP3 player- satellite radio- moving maps and high-resolution viewing monitors- with integrated switching and wireless R/F headsets. Combining the CD/DVD/MP3 capabilities with the satellite radio provides buyers with 'the best of both worlds-' according to the company.

A result of this unique packaging is lower cost – as much as $20-000 below comparable systems – contributing to the strong customer response Stevens’ is experiencing.

Flexibility is another factor in the popularity of the Elite package. The system- Stevens said- is designed for all aircraft- with installations already complete in some King Air 90s and 350s – and installations moving ahead in Hawkers and the Piaggio Avanti. Find out more at www.stevensaviation.com

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