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The connected airline

To harness the value of the data today’s ultra-modern aircraft generate and maximise its potential for both the paying passenger and the airline operator will require an ultra-modern connectivity solution.

By Ben Griffin, VP Mobility, OneWeb

Discussions surrounding the connectivity of an aircraft usually revolve around the Wi-Fi experience that enables passengers to work, or more likely stream their favourite content, or bombard jealous friends with endless selfies. However, in-flight connectivity continually promises so much more. The use of data for predictive maintenance, flight optimisation, fuel efficiency and customer relationship management are but a few examples. Unfortunately, to date, these promises have remained largely unfulfilled, or certainly not to the degree that commercial or operational benefits have been materially met.

For many years now, aircraft have been ‘connected’. Early forms of this were as primitive, yet effective, as visual signals from an ALDIS lamp, and basic VHF voice and ACARS communications that came later in the 20th century. Technology has evolved rapidly since then. Global (if variable) communications via HF bouncing from the ionosphere and satellite communications provide newer capabilities that have enabled far longer and safer intercontinental air routes. 

Even with the few Kbps that were on offer, significant value was being derived, and some basic, yet vital applications evolved. We can consider basic weather applications such as D-ATIS, ATC clearances like DCL over data link to be mammoth steps forward in the 80s and 90s – reducing chatter on the VHF voice channels and significantly reducing the margin for error in receipt and comprehension of critical information

In the cabin, the limited connectivity was put to good use from the first satellite telephones for passenger use and in-flight fax machines, to connected seat-backs with limited applications such as email and SMS capability. The industry saw various attempts at both GSM and Wi-Fi connectivity, some of which survived, some didn’t. We are now in a place where all of these efforts have culminated in a fairly well connected aircraft, some of the time…

The A380 (which first flew more than 15 years ago) collected information on over 200,000 aspects of flight. The wealth of data, was as daunting as it was exciting – ultimately much of this data was stuck at 40,000 feet and of little use. According to Rolls Royce, current data from an aircraft can be measured in the tens of kilobytes! Predictive maintenance for example, can only be predictive if the engineers on the ground know which component is going to fail – so they can get the spare parts ready!

Today’s incumbent connectivity solutions promise much - but in reality actually deliver very little. Whatever the reason, be they high bandwidth costs, limited coverage, variable quality, or a focus on passenger demand, piping data off the aircraft is, in many cases, deemed a secondary priority.   

David Whelan, Senior Research Analyst at Valour Consultancy, explains: “Numerous applications from in-flight fuel optimisation to cabin management solutions can see significant benefits from being connected, but many are still operating unconnected and not reaching their full potential. We expect this to change considerably over the next five to ten years.”

In this latest report – The Market for Connected Digital Applications – Valour Consultancy forecasts the number of aircraft using connected EFBs will triple to more than 17,000 by the end of the decade. Whelan adds: “By 2030, we expect the number of commercial aircraft using connected in-flight fuel optimisation applications could exceed 11,000 as environmental pressure as well as cost saving opportunities drive adoption.”

“Numerous applications from in-flight fuel optimisation to cabin management solutions can see significant benefits from being connected, but many are still operating unconnected and not reaching their full potential.”

This assertion is support by the fact that today’s ultra-modern Boeing 787 Dreamliner and Airbus A350 aircraft are more connected than even their data hungry passengers. According to management consultants Olivier Wyman each new generation of aircraft generates 30 times more data than the previous generation. While these ultra-modern jets comprise a relatively small percentage of the global fleet, in 2016 Olivier Wyman estimated that by 2026 aircraft will generate some 98 billion gigabytes of data per year!

David Whelan from Valour suggests that the post-COVID reduction in the global commercial fleet – due to the acceleration of older generation aircraft retirements and the impact on new aircraft order, means that we are behind schedule on the 2016 forecast Oliver Wyman made, but only by a year or so.

It is clear, that to harness the value of the data these ultra-modern aircraft generate will require an ultra-modern connectivity solution in order to maximise their potential for both the paying passenger and the airline who operates them.  

OneWeb is that ultra-modern, disruptive technology that will unleash the potential for data-driven airline operations. The high bandwidth, at a reduced cost per Mbps, delivers significantly higher value for the airline and will finally mean that they will no longer have to choose between keeping their passengers entertained and productive or using data to drive a more efficient airline.  

OneWeb will deliver a global, consistent and value-driven connectivity solution that will fulfil an airline’s every connected-aircraft dream. The aviation industry is on the cusp of a data revolution that will transform almost every aspect of an airline's operation. Digitalisation is proliferating throughout our industry and with good reason – from LCCs to fully-established legacy carriers, there are so many benefits to going digital (more on that another time).

In 2017, Oliver Wyman estimated that new connectivity and advance analytics of a ‘connected aircraft’ could save the airline industry $5 billion annually. At OneWeb we are thinking much bigger, in terms of the connected airline. The connected aircraft is so last decade.

If we consider an aircraft to be but one part of an airline’s ecosystem, arguably the most important (and certainly the most expensive) part, then it stands to reason it should be fully connected, absolutely everywhere that aircraft flies – only then, can that aircraft be part of a connected airline that can truly harness the power of digitalisation. Imagine the power of real-time CRM, maintenance, asset management, crew management, fuel management etc – not just for an aircraft, but consolidated and built into REAL value derived from the holistic airline picture.

Let us not ignore the environmental benefits, these are also substantial and highly significant. The recent Valour report on the The Market for Connected Digital Applications  identified seven key areas of aircraft digitalisation. These included; document management platforms, electronic flight folders (EFF), crew tablets/cabin reporting; weather charting and navigation; performance optimisation; point of sale solutions, and telemedicine.

“The best part of this picture is that it’s here and now. All of these things are within our capability to deliver.”

The best part of this picture is that it’s here and now. All these things are within our capability to deliver. This decade should see not only the rapid implementation of IFC solutions to match actual requirements, but also the end of the trend of tedious bi-annual meetings about recommendations and standards that take decades to implement – often obsolete by the time they are delivered! The IFC industry is moving on rapidly and we owe it to ourselves to serve our airline partners to change the way we deliver, responsibly.

The connected airline is achievable, mutually valuable and sustainable. OneWeb is changing the way it will be delivered; Limited by imagination, not by available bandwidth.