Connectivity providers divided on ease of aircraft e-enablement


When virtually everyone in the inflight connectivity service provider space come together to discuss what it takes to ensure aircraft are fully connected from nose to tail, it’s no surprise that different opinions will be shared, and a few revelations will emerge.

The connectivity discussion at this year’s APEX Expo conference provided such a scenario, where speakers offered up a variety of ideas related to what it takes to completely e-enable a plane, and Cisco revealed some details about a little known Airbus project. Depending on just how complicated you want to believe the e-enablement task is to accomplish, rest assured there is a vendor who likely shares your belief.

Ian Dawkins, CEO of OnAir, sees many challenges in building an integrated aircraft. “You have to integrate with different satellite systems, different air-to-ground systems, with the airport, with the airlines’ IT infrastructure…. You have to bring the aircraft into the system.”

All these things are true, of course, but just how challenging are these integration tasks? Others on the panel suggested that many of the back-office integration tasks may already be addressed, for example, as the data already is integrated into aircraft monitoring solutions, just not quite as much in real time.

At the far other end of the spectrum Gogo VP airline partnerships Dave Bijur was perhaps the most optimistic of the group on what is involved in the integration efforts. While others spoke of the challenges and hurdles to be cleared Bijur focused on what has already been delivered and how Gogo is learning and growing the scope of the company’s connectivity systems on board the aircraft. No, they have not fully e-enabled an aircraft yet, but Bijur’s view is that it is simply a matter of iterative growth on systems they already know and which they are already successful with. Gogo’s e-enablement program with Delta Air Lines is an example.

“I’m here to tell you that after we’ve put 15,000 flight attendant devices on the Internet it is not hard. It is not complicated. If you start with something like [CC swipe processing] you have a really good chance of learning something there that applies to the [Electronic Flight Bag]. And once you learn from the EFB now you have a shot at engine health monitoring. And once you learn from that, well, the list goes on,” says Bijur.

There was also discussion around the security concerns of using inflight connectivity systems to support both passenger connectivity and crew applications, though it’s clear the concept of using a consolidated network on board is making a comeback. Networking giant Cisco has been working with Airbus for a few years now on creating just such a system. Ted Nugent, a business development manager in Cisco’s aviation and aerospace segment suggests that not only is it possible to have a single wireless network on board, but that the work on making it a reality is nearly complete.

“We put out some ideas about a single, common wireless infrastructure. In the last two years we’ve actually taken that idea and proven that it can be done. We’ve constructed a single common wireless network infrastructure on the aircraft. … We have completed the project and passed the security audit. So, as far as bringing systems together, it is possible,” says Nugent, who will deliver a white paper to Airbus soon.

It is worth noting that this network is only being described as a monitoring system on the aircraft components. Still, it is quite a shift in the market.