Long-time industry veteran Ron Chapman might be the world’s foremost authority on installing Iridium antennas in airliner windows. He started over a decade ago by installing a single-window Iridium antenna on a private jet. It was then that he realized you need an antenna on either side of the aircraft to avoid satellite blank spots.
By 2016, his company, AS-IP Tech (ASIP), laid claim to having commercialized the first dual-window antenna installation on a private jet. It scored European fractional ownership company Jetfly Aviation as a customer for its Bluetooth Smart inflight connectivity solution called CHiiMP, enabling Jetfly pilots and passengers to send and receive text messages in-flight on PC-12s.
Embarking on an airline version of the Bluetooth-based system, ASIP in October 2016 unveiled the fflya-branded solution at the APEX Expo in Singapore. Further tests of a dual Iridium platform were conducted on board an Airbus A340, supporting app messaging and e-commerce. A Bluetooth network for crew messaging – known as CrewX – was also independently live tested on an Airbus A380 and Boeing 777 operated by a major airline. Both widebodies ultimately served as testbeds for ASIP (the airline adopted a broadband cabin connectivity solution).
Now ASIP has announced the installation of the fflya Bluetooth connectivity kit on board a Wizz Air UK Airbus A321 to support messaging, payments and telemetry. A key component of the Wizz Air installation “is our revolutionary window antenna system. We wanted a certified system that was simple to install with minimal components. The installation was carried out by Storm Aviation Limited in co-operation with Wizz Air UK Technical services,” says Chapman in a statement. Storm is a subsidiary of FL Technics.
Supplemental type certification for the install was not required, as the system in this iteration is designed as a minor mod, Chapman tells Runway Girl Network.
News of the Wizz Air agreement follows ASIP’s revelation last summer (via 8-K filing) that an Indonesian licensee has entered into a preliminary agreement with Citilink to install fflya on an Airbus A320.
The next step for ASIP is ground testing to support airline operational approval at Wizz Air. ASIP will work with a top tier Iridium value added reseller if it gets the green light for a rollout.
Low-cost carriers are ASIP’s sole target for fflya in commercial aviation. “We’re not talking to any other airlines than low-cost airlines,” says Chapman, noting that “two other major programs” are underway at airlines.
To be clear, airlines don’t take ASIP’s apps. “They just take our software” and then they embed that into their own apps, explains the ASIP founder and president. “So, you can communicate by the app with anyone on the ground, on their email, WhatsApp or their SMS account on the ground and they can talk back. The same packet data [that facilitates messaging] is also ideally suited for telemetry and payment processing.”
Using a Bluetooth access point/router and Iridium classic service for messaging obviously offers a significantly lower-cost, lower-bandwidth alternative to a traditional onboard Wi-Fi network. Chapman is an unabashed fan of this approach, noting that Wi-Fi locks onto a channel and consumes bandwidth whilst Bluetooth frequency-hops “so the way it works is it hops from channel to channel.”
In 2017, he revealed to RGN that Lufthansa Systems had effectively white labeled fflya to offer an Iridium NEXT-connected BoardConnect Portable to the market. At the end of 2019, Lufthansa Systems indicated it had cooled on the idea of hooking up an Iridium NEXT modem to its “box-in-bin” BoardConnect Portable, citing bandwidth limitations.
Chapman confirms that multiple IFE stakeholders approached him to discuss fflya technology, but ultimately ASIP decided to go it alone in 2019. “We now market direct to the airlines and no longer have any arrangements with any other vendor.”
ASIP’s programs are self funded based on a commercial arrangements. But within the fflya app framework, there are four modules – messaging, transact (for payment processing), retail and interactive advertising. Chapman says fllya has the capacity to generate revenue from the retail component – selling tourist attractions and other adventures to flyers – as well as embedding sponsors within the messaging application. For instance, a company could sponsor and customize the “delivered by” part of a message.
He confirms that ASIP is planning to use legacy Iridium speeds initially and then Iridium Certus in time, explaining:
With the compression algorithms we have, the current SBD [short burst data] service supports our initial messaging program as we can accommodate 20 messages per second. We will then upgrade to Certus based on demand and the base service should accommodate minimum 200 messages per second.
Bear in mind we are not a standard IP interface, but a proprietary packet data solution that is specific to text messaging, CC processing and telemetry.
Iridium’s nextgen Certus service may also see ASIP target real-time credit card transactions in time, but for now, the retail aspect of the system does not require live transmissions.
“Our focus is to minimize the crew impact with prepay/pre book prior to departure via the app. With the added ability to setup an account inflight, only authorizations for payment processing from an account should be sent to the ground in real-time. Return receipt via notifications. It’s really a matter of how you promote the service, as our ultimate goal is to eliminate the handling of credit cards, or at least reduce to an absolute minimum.”
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All images credited to ASIP