Southwest Airlines eyes next step for Ku connectivity

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Southwest Airlines recently selected Boeing Airplane Health Management (AHM) to enhance operational efficiency in its maintenance and engineering operations. Now the US low-cost carrier is in talks to move AHM data over its Global Eagle Entertainment-provided Ku-band connectivity pipe, RGN can reveal.

A web-based system that captures data in real time from aircraft in-flight, AHM data on the Boeing 737 comes from the Aircraft Condition Monitoring System (ACMS) and goes through the Aircraft Communications Addressing and Reporting System (ACARS). Once upon a time, Boeing intended to transmit AHM data – including engine condition, hydraulic fluid and other parameters – via its Connexion by Boeing Ku connectivity service, but the airframer put its plans on ice after Connexion was shuttered in 2006. In February, we reported that studies were again underway to exploit broadband connections for AHM.

Now multiple sources tell RGN that Southwest has begun dialogue with Boeing, Global Eagle and other stakeholders to use the Global Eagle-provided connectivity solution for just this purpose, which will require a powerful ACMS, and appropriate security measures to separate ops data from the passengers’ Internet connection.

Southwest could not provide immediate comment. While Global Eagle’s new chief technology officer Aditya Chatterjee did not talk specifically about ongoing talks with the carrier, he tells RGN that moving AHM over Ku is in the cards. Some airlines send bytes of data before takeoff and during the flight via ACARS, for example, and pay as they go. “When you have Ku, you’re not ‘by the byte’, there is a persistent connection and you can transmit much more data,” says Chatterjee, noting that pricing for a consistent connection via Ku represents “a fundamental advantage” over the current system.

To address security concerns, he says, “You can have separate channels, separate SSIDs that the consumer cannot tap into. So you can almost privatize the right data on a different channel.”

Global Eagle has some experience in supporting the use of Ku for operational benefits. Norwegian, which has fitted its Boeing 737 fleet with the system, use it for “crew and pilot data, [such as] weather-related data, but not direct engine data”, says Chatterjee.

Coordinating with Boeing and Southwest to move AHM data via Ku to the ground, and then to the airline or airframer would be a natural next step. Plenty of work still needs to be done of course, but this is a “very clean way of adding engine specific and other operational data, which would happen in the future through this channel”.

Separately, Global Eagle recently brokered a technical services agreement with Boeing, which is an important first step towards gaining linefit offerability. While we had Chatterjee’s ear, we asked what he thinks of Boeing’s recent announcement that it has tapped General Dynamics to produce a new radome – the Boeing Tri-Band – for use as a linefit option for Ku and Ka-band systems across its portfolio of aircraft.

“We know about it. We haven’t started testing it [the radome]. We know we’ll certify our solutions with that radome. But even if in a linefit environment, in some cases, airlines may retrofit to other radomes which they are comfortable with. The radome – and its ability to transfer RF – is a very important part of the structure, so it’s a critical part of our design.”

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