Line-fit offerability makes big difference in 787 connectivity race


Global Eagle Entertainment and Gogo are eager to bring their Ku-band satellite-supported inflight connectivity solutions to the Boeing 787. But unlike Panasonic Avionics, the companies’ systems are not line-fit offerable on the type.

That gives Panasonic a clear advantage in securing a sizable chuck of near-term 787 Ku connectivity work. Aeromexico, for instance, recently selected Panasonic to provide its eXConnect Ku offering on the carrier’s new 787-8 fleet, as well as Panasonic IFE from nose to tail.

The deal came as a surprise to some industry observers. After all, Aeromexico previously signaled its intent to retrofit Gogo Ku on its 737s, and equip its Embraer regional jets with a lower bandwidth solution from Gogo that operates over Inmarsat’s L-band-based SwiftBroadband service. The deal between Aeromexico and Gogo has not yet been finalized.

Holding line-fit offerability is crucial for players in the connectivity field, a South American carrier recently stressed to Runway Girl Network. The carrier wants to avoid post-delivery retrofit modification of its own on-order Airbus widebody aircraft.

Global Eagle and Gogo have each reported progress towards gaining line-fit status with Boeing, though Gogo appears to be further along in the process. Earlier this year, the Chicago area company inked a technical services agreement (TSA) that means its Ku connectivity system – and its air-to-ground Wi-Fi solution – are formally under evaluation by the airframer.

Additionally, Gogo currently has an agreement in place with Boeing for line-fit “provisions” for its latest generation ATG-4 technologies on 737NG aircraft. This essentially makes the installation process for the ATG-4 service easier after an airline takes delivery, and is an important step to achieving true line-fit capabilities in the future.

Global Eagle today announced that it too has signed a TSA with Boeing. The airframer is expected to complete its evaluation of Global Eagle’s Ku system during 2015.

Interestingly, Boeing is playing more of a steering role in bringing connectivity to the 787 than other types. The aircraft has unique structural considerations due to its composite frame, and would-be connectivity providers on the program must use Boeing’s antenna radome.

“We understand clearly what the requirements are with Boeing; that is in hand. As you’ve surmised, with the 787, Boeing will be taking the driver’s seat on the structural issues. That certainly doesn’t mean it’s insurmountable but it’s a time-consuming process to get on that plane, either retrofit or line-fit,” says Global Eagle chief technology officer John Guidon.

But in light of the strong uptick in interest for connected aircraft, and the fact that the airframer is in the driver’s seat on the 787, would Boeing ever reconsider offering its own connectivity service on Boeing aircraft (resurrecting Connexion by Boeing)? When I asked Boeing this question late last year, a spokesman for the manufacturer responded: “Boeing has no current plans to re-enter the connectivity hardware or service provider arena.”

Boeing manager connectivity R. Stephen Call later told us that the 787-8 and 787-9 will “roll off the flight line with connectivity” this summer, and that Panasonic eXConnect customer United Airlines will receive the first Ku connected 787s. Qatar Airways will receive delivery of 787s equipped with Thales’ TopConnect hardware, which runs over SwiftBroadband and includes both Wi-Fi and mobile connectivity service from OnAir.

Call confirmed that Boeing had already developed the antenna radome that will house the large Ku-band antennas on the 787 and is currently “developing the radome to support future Ka offerings”. 

Guidon says, “If I was to speculate and this would be a personal opinion, I would say they’ll draw the line at the point where they make the structural provisions and aero provisions and that they will offer opportunities for the likes of Global Eagle and our competitors to integrate into the structures that they provide.”

Stressing again that he is purely speculating, Guidon adds, “I don’t imagine that Boeing would have another bite at managing the network. It’s not a particularly easy job. I can understand install hardware and mechanical stuff, but I can’t understand the value proposition for Boeing to get into (service). We know that being a top class network and service provider itself is a big responsibility and not something that Boeing wants to get into.”

Global Eagle wants to bring its Ku system to Norwegian’s 787s, but Boeing has not given its blessing to Global Eagle to retrofit its Ku system to the 787.