Southwest studies transmitting data over Ku when 737s are idle

Rotation

Global Eagle Entertainment is not the only company excited about Southwest Airlines’ interest in potentially moving Boeing Airplane Health Management (AHM) data over cabin connectivity versus the traditional ACARS downlink. The low-cost carrier’s director of engineering Kent Horton tells RGN that he too is eager to exploit the Global Eagle Ku-band pipe for operational benefits.

One idea being bandied about Southwest is to move data over Ku when the airline’s Boeing’s 737s are idle, but still have power. “We have all this capacity – basically full capacity – between 10pm or 11pm and 6am every day and there is a lot of data that the airplane generates that doesn’t have to be transmitted in real-time. So we have this huge pipeline that is idle during non-passenger use hours, and we see a great opportunity to leverage the connectivity we have. If there is power on the airplane – and there are a lot of airplanes every night that do have power as part of various [maintenance] checks – then the system could be active and transferring data during those time frames, “ says Horton.

Southwest already offers gate-to-gate connectivity to passengers so it could use the pipe in much the same way to move AHM and other data on the ground. Horton notes that a lot of data “doesn’t have to have immediate attention and is something that could be [addressed] in a matter of hours or even days”. In other words, inflight transmissions are not always necessary.

The Southwest executive also reveals that there is “a big desire for us to be able to upload to the airplane software for our flight management systems; we have to update those every 28 days to the navigation database [in the FMS]. If we could put that onto the airplane without having to walk a person to the data loader there are a lot of efficiencies like that.”

Of course, another idea being considered would be to dedicate a slice of Ku to transmitting AHM and other sensitive data in-flight. “One of the challenges of this – and what’s paramount for us – is we want to preserve the quality and experience that our passengers get when using the system. So we don’t want operational aspects of using that [pipe] to interfere or degrade our customer experience,” says Horton. If something is truly critical, then Southwest could “prioritize which methodology” to use, be that Ku, ACARS “or for the 737-800 airplanes which also have a satcom system on them”.

Is streaming black box data over broadband pipes, even in bursts – as suggested by Teledyne Controls and a few others – a realistic way of thinking or pie in the sky nonsense, I ask? “I think it’s definitely something that needs to be carefully considered,” says Horton. “How critical is it to consistently obtain that information and what are the real requirements and need for that data – it would have to be carefully evaluated. There are a lot of things that are technically feasible that are not economical and there are some things economical that don’t necessarily make good sense, but we have to evaluate the whole spectrum of the problem and not get too focused on one particular aberration.”

Southwest is paying close attention to how connectivity is evolving and improving., including how the launch of High Throughput Satellites might change the economics. “There is always future technology that would allow for higher capacity and greater bandwidth and we will definitely always monitor those opportunities”, says Horton, “but at this juncture there is nothing available to date to just drop in. We’re definitely monitoring Ka and deployments but at this point we’re pleased overall with what we’re getting with Ku. Is there room for improvement? Always.”

As Global Eagle’s new CTO, Aditya Chatterjee, expressed to us, ensuring secure transmission of aircraft health data is a concern, though this will be addressed. “There are several different things that we’re looking at [to address this] whether separate wireless access points, obviously the firewalls, public key info and other security techniques. We’re confident [this can be established], and we’ll be working with Boeing on future airplane deliveries and [our connectivity subsidiary] Row 44 obviously, in sorting out the proper architecture to make sure we have all necessary security measures in place that we need,” he says. Chatterjee is among a list of esteemed speakers scheduled to discuss the benefits of aircraft e-enablement at the forthcoming Cabin Integration Symposium, which will be held on 24 September in Las Vegas.

Separately, Global Eagle is working towards gaining linefit offerability for its Ku connectivity system on Boeing 737s and 787s so that its system can be installed at the Boeing factory. Southwest is supportive of this move, with Horton saying there is “definitely a desire to do that. We want to operate an airline, not an airplane modification function; it’s advantageous for us to get a airplane ready for service from Boeing.”

He also says Southwest has worked with Global Eagle to improve Southwest passengers’ experience with connectivity over the last six months. “We had a very focused effort that really culminated in several system changes in the past few months, and my personal experience and also feedback from customers is that it is definitely improved from where it has been in terms of consistency.”

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