As inflight connectivity providers work to meet the FAA’s protocol for bird strike testing of antenna radomes on aircraft, some are experiencing protracted delays to their connectivity equipage programs for airlines. That’s why certain companies are installing connectivity hardware under exemption by the FAA, in order to move things along.
This can be risky. Exemptions last for one year, but there is no guarantee the FAA will find in a company’s favor.
JetBlue Airways subsidiary LiveTV rolled the dice and installed Ka-band connectivity hardware using its A320 STC under exemption. But LiveTV in late January announced it had met the FAA’s requirements for bird strike on the A320. At least one foreign carrier is understood to have begun installing a separate Ku system on its aircraft, under exemption.
In seeking STC from the FAA, connectivity providers must demonstrate the following:
“The aeroplane must be designed to assure capability of continued safe flight and landing of the aeroplane after impact with a 4 lb bird when the velocity of the aeroplane (relative to the bird along the aeroplane’s flight path) is equal to VC at sea-level or 0·85 VC at 2438 m (8000 ft), whichever is the more critical. Compliance may be shown by analysis only when based on tests carried out on sufficiently representative structures of similar design.”
The FAA issued its explicit guidance in November 2012, but said the language didn’t represent a change to prior requirements. Though the FAA stepped up its scrutiny of bird strike tests on antenna radomes, the agency did not point to any particular bird strike event as driving it. The FAA does take incidents of bird strikes on aircraft very seriously, however, as these have a big safety and financial impact.
One company that believes it is well-placed to meet the FAA’s guidance is Honeywell, which is providing the terminal units that will support the Inmarsat Global Xpress (GX) Ka-band connectivity service that will be available in 2015. Early in its development of the terminal units, Honeywell made a decision that radomes “whether for an aftermarket solution or an ARINC 791 solution” for new aircraft will be bird strike compliant, says Honeywell director marketing and product management John Broughton. ARINC 791 is the spec that covers Ku-band connectivity installs, and is now being followed for Ka installs on commercial aircraft.
“We picked this one up pretty early in the process. What the FAA is basically doing is effectively enforcing to the letter rules that were already written. They were, in the past, allowing people a waiver to basically not look at a bird strike in the worst case combination of being hit by a bird and by a bird at speed; they looked at airplanes flying lower and slower and didn’t do the test at the maximum speed so we picked up on what the FAA was doing early in the program and made the decision that our offering would be bird strike compliant, and [to] do it under the full envelope of aircraft. So we’re good on this one. We haven’t been caught in that situation, which as you say some other folks have, of having a solution that might have reflected an old understanding with the FAA.”
In its conversations with airlines about GX, “they’ve been very happy to hear that we’re not trying to wiggle around this, that we’re facing up to new regulations and will be compliant right out of the box”, adds Broughton.
As some Ku connectivity providers have encountered unexpected delays to their equipage schedules and as Inmarsat’s GX program continues to hit its benchmarks, the big head start advantage enjoyed by the Ku camp appears to be slipping, suggest GX service providers.
“The thing that Gogo didn’t like about GX two years ago was it wasn’t coming for three years, so that window is closing and we are aggressively selling Global Xpress now. But airlines have choice and some airlines – Delta and others – still believe that Ku is the right choice for their operation,” Gogo SVP international operations David Russell said at the recent HMG Aerospace-hosted IFEC conference at Aircraft Interiors Middle East in Dubai.
Russell said Gogo hopes that the same issues impacting Ku radomes won’t “appear in the future with other technologies” but noted that the company “didn’t expect them to appear on Ku so that window, I agree, that window of vulnerability is closing for GX, but we don’t know what we don’t know, as we found out in the Delta program.”
Meanwhile, Honeywell this week announced it has signed a memorandum of understanding with Air China to begin testing GX service on the airline’s A330 aircraft when the service is available in 2015. But Air China is clearly shopping around. The carrier also announced it will trial Global Eagle Entertainment’s Ku solution on a Boeing 777-200. And it could yet opt to trial even more connectivity products. Both Honeywell and Global Eagle must receive STCs for their Ka and Ku systems, respectively, on the A330 and the 777-200.
It’s fair to say that, when it comes to winning inflight connectivity business, the race is well and truly on.