Qatar Airways makes split inflight Internet decision in face of delay


DOHA: It may seem a little ironic but it now appears likely that Qatar Airways’ new-design twinjets will be the last to be fitted with broadband inflight connectivity, as the carrier has confirmed its intent to adopt Inmarsat’s Global Xpress Ka-band service for its Boeing 787s and Airbus A350 XWBs, while expanding its equipage of Panasonic Avionics’ eXConnect Ku-band solution on other long-haul types in its fleet.

We’ve known since March that Qatar Airways has been retrofiting a sub-fleet of Airbus A330-200s with eXConnect. In a recent closed roundtable interview in Doha, the airline’s CEO, His Excellency Akbar Al Baker, revealed to RGN that his designs on broadband go far beyond this small group of jets. However it does seem that the last aircraft in the Qatar Airways fleet to get faster connectivity will be the most modern.

“We have now some of our A330s also fitted [with eXConnect],” he said. “The 777 will have Panasonic and the A330 will have Panasonic, but the 787 and the A350 will have to rely on the development of the [Inmarsat Global Xpress product] because they are not compatible.” There is a potential twist to the story, however, as discussed in greater detail on RGN Premium.

Fellow Gulf carriers, Etihad Airways and Emirates, have also thrown Ku connectivity business at Panasonic in part because Panasonic is spending beaucoup bucks to offer a here-and-now global broadband solution; is adding what it characterizes as “massive capacity” at areas of the world that need it; and has the infrastructure in place to provide global support. All three carriers are also customers of Panasonic for embedded IFE, though Qatar is rolling out Thales IFE on its 787s and A350s.

Qatar’s Boeing 787s and new A350 aircraft are line-fitted with Inmarsat SwiftBroadband (L-band spectrum); connectivity hardware is provided by Thales, and OnAir acts as service provider. However, Al Baker suggests that web-hungry passengers flying on these connected aircraft are not always satisfied with the speed. “To be honest, the Wi-Fi connectivity that is available on the airplane is not that high-speed and the capacity is not [great] … sometimes, somebody may feel that it is a little bit slow because so many people are using it.”

While customers like Qatar Airways – already flying with SwiftBroadband from Thales and OnAir – are first in line for a quick upgrade to Inmarsat’s Global Xpress Ka-band service when it goes live, the program is delayed. Although one of Inmarsat’s I-5 Ka-band satellites is already in orbit, engine failure during the May 2014 launch of the Russian Proton rocket has stalled the program, and Inmarsat had been counting on Proton to ferry the remaining two satellites into space, now planned for this year. The program delay is material; consider, for instance, that Thales previously talked about Global Xpress being available in 2014.

This means that in the meantime, passengers flying on Qatar’s newest babies, the 787 and the A350, will simply need to deal with slower download speeds. Al Baker has no intention of pulling out the Thales/OnAir equipment, nor does he seem thrilled with the idea of installing Panasonic hardware in addition to or instead of what he already has on these jets.

OnAir recently released a a statement touting the benefits if Qatar’s SwiftBroadband offering onboard the A350. Notably in the statement, the deadline for Global Express installation is listed as 2016.

Separately, Al Baker confirmed that Qatar Airways will adopt a black box streaming solution in the wake of MH370 and QZ8501. While he didn’t provide details about the airline’s partner, or choice of solution, it would be logical to suggest that Inmarsat’s ‘black box in a cloud’ service may be under consideration for the business. SwiftBroadband, which is poised to be cleared for safety services, could easily support such an offering.