Airlines undecided about Inmarsat’s free tracking solution

Weeks after Inmarsat proposed a free global airline tracking service to ICAO, Hawaiian Airlines responded with a resolution to participate in trials, via principal engineer – avionics engineering Dan Smith’s statement at the Global Connected Aircraft Summit in early June.

Inmarsat’s “free tracking” consists of one FANS/ADS-C position report being provided for free once every 15 minutes; FANS/ADS-C is over Classic Aero service, not SwiftBroadband (SBB) as yet – the latter is pending availability of safety services approval.

“We do have some SwiftBroadband connectivity, it’s not activated,” said Smith, as he confirmed that Hawaiian considers the proposed Inmarsat service a boon to onboard safety and communication practices. Airlines including TAP Portugal, All Nippon Airways and Lufthansa have also expressed some level of interest in learning more about the proposed service from London-headquartered Inmarsat. It should be noted that – as RGN previously reported – Hawaiian was already poised to be the first carrier to test SwiftBroadband for safety services before the MH370 tragedy spurred Inmarsat to offer free tracking.

Mário Araújo, TAP director of maintenance & engineering and chairman of the Airlines Electronic Engineering Committee (AEEC), said his airline is a strong Inmarsat customer, and one of the first to equip with SwiftBroadband in 2007. Araújo  said TAP plans to confer with Inmarsat about the service after finishing the cabin modifications its fleet is currently undergoing. Shimpei Ishihara of All Nippon Airways’ engineering department likewise said ANA needs more information, “That’s all we are thinking now.”

Lufthansa already uses ACARS datalink-based position reporting for “mission support purposes”, according to Nils Haupt, Lufthansa’s director of corporate communications for the Americas. “Lufthansa is investigating additional means of satellite-based aircraft tracking. The Inmarsat services have not been analyzed in detail yet,” said Haupt.

For those airlines inquiring about the service, just as many confirmed they simply won’t be using the service, whether for lack of equipage or otherwise. Gulf Air, American Airlines, US Airways, United, FedEx, Air Côte d’Ivoire, Jazz Canada, Southwest and Delta are among those that told RGN they will explicitly not participate in a free position location service trial.

Amidst both interest and dissent, however, there has proved a gray area, where the likes of Israel’s EL AL and others fall. According to Jacob Barak, director of engineering at EL AL, though the airline has Inmarsat satcom on its Boeing 747-400 and 777 fleet, it is currently used only for voice and ACARS datalink. “I have heard [about the service],” said Barak, “but my knowledge on this is practically zero”.

Sharing that indecision are also Etihad Airways and Emirates. Emirates spokesperson Matt Howard refused to say whether the carrier might take up use of the new Inmarsat service, “All Emirates aircraft are equipped with systems that can assist in aircraft tracking,” he said. “This is achieved through location mappers and tracking systems that report the health of the aircraft in-flight.”

Etihad’s BFE program & projects connectivity program manager Nsizwa Khumalo confirmed SwiftBroadband-supported OnAir is on three A330-300s as well as on Etihad’s A321s, A320s and A319s. “As far as I know neither Inmarsat nor OnAir has approached us for a trial,” said Khumalo, adding that Emirates has more widebodies than Etihad does with SwiftBroadband installed.

Inmarsat’s senior VP of network operations John Mackey said the fact that the service came announced specifically as a proposal to ICAO might explain the wary stance some early responders are taking. RGN did not receive word back from Japan Airlines, Azul, British Airways, Norwegian, Air France, KLM Royal Dutch or Kuwait Airways on whether they will consider using the free position location service.

It’s true that SBB logs directly position data that may indeed be used for tracking – but, as one can see from the various airlines answers, not so many are equipped with SBB: that’s the very reason Inmarsat concentrated its offer on Classic Aero: almost every transoceanic commercial transport aircraft (= the ones that really need tracking) is using Classic Aero (only a few are using Iridium) and 80% (approx. 3,500, growing every year) of the corresponding twin-aisle are FANS/ADS-C capable.

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