Onboard Connectivity Takes Flight On Business Jets

Forget airspeed, range, and rate of climb: Today the business jet performance metrics that matter most to executives are often the bandwidth, speed and coverage area of onboard connectivity equipment—specs that are rapidly increasing as a new generation of cabin connectivity solutions get airborne.

“Twenty years ago, CEOs used to read on airplanes—that was quiet time,” says Curt Gray, senior director of connectivity support at Honeywell Aerospace, whose JetWave high-speed Ka-band satellite service debuted last year. “Now they’re always plugged in and connected. They want to walk on [the aircraft] and have a seamless transition, continue their phone call, check e-mail and have video running in the background wherever they are in the world.”

Enhancing connectivity boosts efficiency, says David Stanley, senior director of strategy and business development, Information Management Services, for Rockwell Collins a provider of hardware and services, who cites a team that used to fly from the U.S. to Europe at night to avoid being out of touch during the workday. After upgrading its service, the team started flying in the morning, allowing the executives “a full day of onboard productivity, and a good night’s rest before their meetings.”

You don’t need to travel internationally—or have a large cabin jet—to realize the benefits of boosting onboard connectivity. Initially, Tracy Forrest, CEO of Winter Park Construction, couldn’t see the ROI in upgrading the satcom service aboard the CJ3 he now flies. That’s partly because he pilots the aircraft himself, leaving little time to take advantage of standard cabin connectivity utilities. Still, potential productivity gains led him to install a Gogo Air-to-Ground (ATG) broadband system. Now his passengers “pretend they’re at their desks, getting as much work done as possible while en route.” Meanwhile, from the flight deck, Forrest uses online services and apps that enhance cockpit and flight operations.

Seeking Solutions

A combination of equipment, software and network access plans from a variety of companies enable onboard connectivity. The satellite and ATG networks carry the digital traffic to and from the aircraft; onboard hardware and software, or apps, control data coming to, from and within the cabin; and service subscriptions provide network access.

Satellite networks such as Inmarsat and Iridium typically cede sales of retail service to value-added resellers (VARs) like Honeywell, Rockwell Collins, Gogo Business Aviation and Viasat, all of which make their own connectivity equipment. These VARs develop subscription-style access plans with proprietary features and options.

“Twenty years ago, the CEO used to read on airplanes—that was quiet time. Now they’re always plugged in and connected. .”

When looking for a solution, “First, ask what do you want to do with the aircraft, what problem do you want to solve?” advises Gray. Some execs need only basic e-mail access and light web-surfing capability. Others want to stream movies, support video conferencing or even trade stocks while airborne. Based on the needs, providers will design the best system and service plan.

The trend today is to have dual solutions: an ATG pipe for use in North America—the only continent where ATG service is available—and a sitcom pipe for everywhere else. Though its speed advantage has largely disappeared with the new generation of Kaband and Ku-band satellites, ATG access is less costly than satcom service, making it attractive to U.S.-based aircraft. But satcom service allows connectivity on the ground and in the air, while ATG is guaranteed to work only at altitudes of 10,000 feet.

Often the solution is part of a cabin management system that also controls in-flight entertainment, environmental systems and can even manage multiple connectivity solutions, switching between a satellite and ATG system based on signal strength, service charges and other configurable parameters.

Each solution must also earn FAA approval, called a supplemental type certificate (STC), for use on each model of aircraft. The process is complex and time consuming, and many business jet models aren’t yet approved for all or any of these installations, so the availability of an STC may dictate the solution adopted.

Keeping the Pipes Clean

As with any high-tech gear, configuration and system management are key factors in optimizing connectivity. Solution providers place a premium on providing 24/7 service, proactively monitoring networks and usage to watch for service issues and unusual activity.

“More bandwidth can solve a lot of issues, but bandwidth is scarce in an aircraft using a satellite connection when you’ve got multiple users with multiple devices,” says Stanley. Like those of other providers, Rockwell’s data-usage application blocks automatic app updates and other bandwidth-hogging functions that might boost data consumption costs and slow down performance.

Satcom Direct’s platform transforms aircrafts into “data information nodes,” reporting information on engines, position and aircraft systems. It has a predictive mapping feature that “can actually show any [connectivity] issues on the planned flight route,” says Chris Moore, Satcom Direct’s chief commercial officer. Flight crews can inform passengers about expected shortfalls and, if necesssary, alter the route.

Similarly, a partnership with the Weather Channel enables sensors on Gogo’s systems to turn “each aircraft into a mini weather station and provide that information across the entire equipped fleet” to smooth travel for passengers, says Sergio Aguirre, president of Gogo.

At a time of heightened concern about cybersecurity, hacking is luckily less of an issue with onboard connectivity. Satellite links are carried by private networks, and companies typically have their own virtual private network with security protocols built atop that foundation.

In fact, executives “will go to the aircraft to make phone calls to ensure they’re secure” when traveling to underdeveloped parts of the world, says Gray. (The biggest threat, according to experts, is from authorized users ignoring security protocols.)

Satcom Direct, which offers a cybersecurity monitoring module, recently detected multiple unauthorized attempts to access the email account of someone on a customer’s jet and alerted the crew. “The customer’s laptop was fine, but a guest onboard had malware on a laptop,” says Moore. “We were able to capture that and report it to the customer.”

Connecting to the Future

Experts see onboard connectivity trends accelerating. “If you’re a consumer, service will get better, speeds will get faster and costs will go down,” says Stanley.

“I see more players and more competition—not just geosynchronous [satellite] constellations, but low-earth orbit constellations and even mid-earth orbit constellations, so there’s no lack for future connectivity technologies coming to market.” Says Moore, “In the future, all aircraft will become connected. It is the natural progression of technology, coupled with an overwhelming need for people to be connected all of the time.”

Read more: Plane Advantage: New Jet Models Aim to Please CEOs and CFOs

James Wynbrandt :James Wynbrandt is a pilot and aviation expert, author of Flying High and a contributor to Air & Space and Business Jet Traveler, among others.