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The Connected Aircraft Will Be a Game Changer

Aircraft connectivity will create opportunities in the cockpit to improve real-time decision making and flight-crew operations, and in the cabin to enhance the passenger experience. That was the all-around consensus of aerospace executives at the recent Global Connected Aircraft Summit in Arlington, VA, where most viewed the connected aircraft as a game changer for aircraft and aircrew operations, the flying public, and airspace operations.

The following examines some of the benefits that arise with cockpit connectivity.

Connected Cockpit: Aircraft and Aircrew Operations

In-Flight Real-Time Weather

This was mentioned repeatedly as one of the biggest opportunities, with weather apps being the low-hanging fruit of operational efficiency facilitated by cockpit connectivity. Improved connectivity would enable robust and real-time weather data acquisition from in-flight weather apps so pilots and air traffic controllers can make flight-plan alterations to avoid turbulence and save fuel, for example. In addition, dispatchers presently rely on pilot reports transmitted over ACARS (Aircraft Communications Addressing and Reporting System) that quickly become out of date. Broadband connectivity would give them real-time weather information for the current flight.

Wireless Dispatch

Some airlines restrict the number of flight-plan changes once away from the gate, necessitating a return for re-dispatch if that number of changes is exceeded. Wireless dispatch would permit re-dispatch without returning to the gate, keeping planes in the air and saving money and passenger goodwill.

Medical Incidents

In-flight medical incidents are very disruptive, with the current process slow and laborious as the pilots communicate the medical incident to the ground. With improved connectivity, an app could be developed to record the passenger's vital signs and transmit them to the ground for analysis. That way the pilots can concentrate on flying the airplane while life-saving information can be given to crew to stabilize medical incidents, decreasing the need to divert and offering options to the airline and passengers.

Aircraft-to-Aircraft Chat

Some carriers like Hawaiian Airlines are developing chat functionality that permit aircraft to chat with one another, as well as with air traffic control. This would enable aircraft to obtain key weather information from other aircraft that recently traversed the flight path.

Cabin Crew Assist

Carriers are working on a variety of apps in this realm, including: chat capability between flight attendants and ground agents; guest services tools to transfer passenger information to flight attendants; communication of maintenance approvals for broken items in the cabin; and status of overhead bins during boarding.

In addition to the aircraft and aircrew operations use case described above, the connected aircraft will also benefit the passenger experience and airspace operations.

Connected Cabin: Passenger Experience

Customer Satisfaction & Brand Loyalty

Passengers no longer look at terrestrial-comparable connectivity in flight as a privilege but as a right. There are few if any direct revenue benefits to the airlines, as studies show that airlines can charge only a basic fee for the service as passengers reject anything more. Rather, connectivity drives benefits in customer satisfaction, goodwill, and brand loyalty, and can also lead to airline product differentiation. It should be mentioned, though, that some airlines like LATAM (the merged Chilean LAN Airlines and Brazilian TAM Airlines) are exploring the role that connectivity plays in increased e-commerce and revenue generation. At the same time, passengers could use broadband connectivity to access traditional e-commerce channels while en route.

Broadband for Work & Entertainment

Available bandwidth for cockpit and cabin connectivity is reaching an inflection point with numerous high-bandwidth satellites coming online from providers like Intelsat, Inmarsat, SES, and ViaSat. Lower-cost launch options from companies like Elon Musk's SpaceX and Jeff Bezos' Blue Origin will greatly reduce the barriers to entry for satellite operators, leading to massive increases in data capacity, enabling greater data usage by passengers and providing a more robust in-air experience. In-flight broadband for improved work and entertainment experiences point directly back to customer satisfaction and brand loyalty.

Connected ATC: Airspace Operations

Situational Awareness

Once there's a network of connected aircraft in the air, each one becomes a data point to support large-scale weather algorithms and airspace optimization. With better situational awareness of each aircraft in the system, spacing and timing can be optimized to increase capacity without adding costly infrastructure. As aircraft utilization rates go up, operational efficiency increases for airlines, airports, and others in the aerospace support ecosystem.

Challenges Ahead for the Connected Aircraft

IT professionals in commercial aviation tend to be more security conscious than those in other sectors because of the public-safety component. In addition, aviation is an unusual mix of very old technology and very new technology, with networks that represent a big target for malicious actors. Some speakers at the summit noted that this target makes it's very easy for security officers to say "no" to almost everything. That's a major cultural hurdle that needs to be overcome to fulfill the promise of the connected aircraft.

Culture will also play a strong role in the cockpit, where pilots are presently untrained in the heightened cybersecurity requirements of operating in a digital environment. They will need to view these requirements in the same light that they follow safety protocols.

The global nature of aerospace is another factor that will potentially slow the march toward connectivity. Airlines would rather buy solutions than build them, but with so many vendors around the world—many offering proprietary solutions—it is difficult to get global solutions and global answers. Standardization would go a long way toward speeding aircraft connectivity, many experts observed.

For aircraft and aircrew operations, regulatory requirements for systems deemed flight critical are considerably more stringent than regulations related to passenger connectivity. And while regulatory hurdles for cabin connectivity are fewer than those for cockpit connectivity, the certification process is still lengthy. In addition, individual systems on legacy aircraft may not be robust enough to support access to needed data.

Improving the passenger experience is also tied to aircraft upgrades, and the time it takes to install connectivity related upgrades across an entire fleet is one of biggest barriers to an improved passenger connectivity experience, many insiders observed. Due to the nature of these upgrades, which potentially include the installation of modems, antennas, wiring, and servers, there are a limited number of maintenance windows that provide enough time to complete these installations. When deciding whether to upgrade fleet connectivity, airlines will need to weigh the benefits of improving passenger connectivity against the potential adverse impacts to aircraft maintenance schedules and lost revenues due to aircraft downtime. Due to the time constraints around maintenance, several airlines noted that once a large fleet is fully equipped, the technology is already out of date and the next upgrade or refit is most likely overdue.

For airspace operations, additional limitations come from the reluctance of original equipment manufacturers, airlines, and others to share what they consider proprietary data. Industry analysts at the summit agreed that connectivity will be hindered if every bit of data is treated as confidential.

And while the technologies needed to take advantage of an airborne network of sensors have been theorized and tested on a small scale, they have not been demonstrated widely. That leaves much development still to come.

All these challenges to airborne broadband will certainly be overcome in time, however, bringing game-changing capabilities to commercial aviation.