Mobile devices have become part of people’s daily life nowadays and many passengers bring their devices aboard, but without in-flight WiFi service, they only can play Angry Birds game during the boring flight period.
That will change on the flights of Air China Ltd. The company signed an agreement with Honeywell Aerospace, part of Honeywell International Inc. It will test from the second quarter 2015 the Global Xpress (GX) Aviation system on its fleet of A330 aircraft.
GX Aviation is a high-speed Ka-band in-flight connectivity service powered by GX Ka-band satellite network of Inmarsat Plc, a communications firm established in 1979 by the International Maritime Organization to enable ships to stay in touch with the shore or call for help.
With the technology, passengers can expect a 60 per cent faster download speed compared with now.
The first GX satellite was launched in December 2013, Bill Peltola, Inmarsat’s aviation vice president said. The second and third GX satellites are scheduled for launch by year-end.
Those three satellites will span the globe and provide a more stable signal.
There are two different solutions to provide in-flight connectivity services currently, either through ground bases or satellites.
Compared with the new satellites, the current satellite solution is less certain, as a result of satellites moving from area to area, Jack Jacobs, Honeywell Aerospace’s vice president of marketing and product management, said. Once the new satellites are in place, the cost of the satellite service will be lower too, he said.
Under Honeywell and Inmarsat’s agreement, the US technology company will exclusively develop, produce and distribute onboard hardware to allow mobile-device users to connect to Inmarsat’s GX constellation network.
“The advantage of GX Aviation is not just its satellites,” said Brian Davis, vice president, Asia Pacific, Airlines, Honeywell Aerospace. It’s “also for the global and high-speed communication network.”
Being able to connect at higher speed to the network while in flight will open opportunities industry wide. Honeywell showed related research applications at its international media day on May 21.
The satellite system can be used elsewhere, said Vamsi Gundluru, Honeywell’s marketing and product manager of cockpit systems. It can provide real-time data to a maintenance center when the airplane is flying and show the flight path to passengers. The company will continue to further cut costs and increase speed, he added.
Mid-air, online surfing is not new. Boeing Co developed its Connexion system for it in 2004.
The Seattle, Washington-based aircraft builder promoted its service with German airline Lufthansa AG at the time. The program closed after two years due to costs and low market growth.
It costs over $1 million to put the Connexion system into an aircraft and Boeing invested more than $1 billion in the project.
Companies such as Gogo, OnAir and Lake Forest, California-based Panasonic Avionics Corp, also provide in-flight connectivity services to airlines.
They may talk with Honeywell about possible cooperation on GX Aviation technology.
A Honeywell survey showed almost 90 of respondents from the US, UK and Singapore would change in-flight mobile service providers if they could.
Honeywell estimates that in 20 years it can get $2.8 billion from in-flight mobile services.
“You cannot ignore the new service, when the passengers need it,” Bas Gerressen, general manager of Air France-KLM Group, said. The company started to offer the service in May 2013.
He said the future of the service is bright, although it still needs time to develop.
In-flight services are more used in the US. The Federal Aviation Administration changed its regulations in late 2013. It allowed electronic devices to be used for reading, watching videos and playing games on the flight.
That increased the need for in-flight mobile services. United Airlines (BD) Ltd supplied a satellite-based air-to-ground WiFi service for international wide-bodied aircraft in January 2013. Chinese airlines are also interested because most only use a local area network on board. Air China and Hainan Airlines Co Ltd, the country’s fourth-largest airline, have sought permission to test in-flight connectivity.
“We have upgraded our equipment to the second generation, suitable for the Internet,” said Zhang Yong, manager of the technical service department of the Design and Modification center of HNA Aviation Technik Co Ltd. The firm develops the group’s own in-flight connectivity equipment.
Hainan Airlines plans to equip its whole fleet with the in-flight WiFi system. Domestic airlines must still solve the problem of how to make money from what is now a free service.
Different airlines should develop different business models of the service, Honeywell’s Davis said.
For low-cost airlines, an in-flight WiFi service could be among its most important income drivers. For a full-service airline, it should cost less, Davis said.
“The in-flight connectivity service could bring some new business opportunities, especially in social media and data services,” Zou Jianjun, a professor at the Civil Aviation Management Institute of China, said.
Airlines and companies providing their technical equipment should first develop the means to deliver it. No passenger will pay for unstable, slow mobile services.