Hard on the heels of American Airlines’ announcement late last year that it will bring Intelsat’s electronically steered antenna (ESA) connectivity to nearly 500 dual-class regional jets, Intelsat head of commercial aviation Dave Bijur understandably had a spring in his step, telling RGN that he sees the AA deal — and indeed Intelsat’s several-hundred tail backlog for the ESA — as a ringing endorsement for both the system’s “multi-orbit” capabilities and 60-year-old Intelsat’s ability to get the job done. Furthermore, he revealed that the ESA is being designed with the intention of staying on aircraft for ten years.
“This is successful because I think the multi-orbit story really resonates with people. LEO is great; I think this is going to be the future of inflight Internet, but because of the way the architecture of LEOs cover the planet with equal capacity everywhere, it doesn’t work because demand is not equal. Demand is really heavy where you and I are standing right now and so, as a result, we can use GEO in certain neighborhoods and LEO in a lot of other neighborhoods. And so, I think that works and I think it’s going to be great,” Bijur told RGN on the sidelines of Intelsat’s first-ever Investor & Media Forum at its headquarters in McLean, Virginia.
“And I also think that Intelsat — kind of like what you’re seeing here today [at the Forum] — is a reliable, known entity. We’re going to get this job done well and on time, and I don’t think anybody has to wonder if we’re going to do anything crazy ever, because I think that’s a distinguishing feature for us.”
When asked by RGN if the AA arrangement constitutes a ‘like for like’ replacement of legacy Gogo air-to-ground connectivity with the Intelsat ESA, Bijur revealed there’s a little bit more to it. In addition to replacing ATG, there’s always new deliveries of regional jets or any jets occurring, he noted. “And so, as that happens, these new airplanes will get it.” And indeed, it appears there are still some Embraer E170 orders in the books for American and a regional affiliate.
Bijur previously worked as regional president for Gogo overseeing airline partnerships in North America before Intelsat acquired Gogo’s commercial aviation business at the end of 2020 and inked a 10-year network services agreement under which it gained exclusive access to Gogo’s ATG services for the commercial market in North America. Did Intelsat sign the ATG network services agreement with the express purpose of swapping all of these regional jets’ legacy ATG hardware with the ESA, the latter based on Ball’s mature technology and the modular design from integration partner Stellar Blu Solutions (SBS)?
“I think this was an inevitability,” opined Bijur, admitting that he knew the technology roadmap early on “because I was part of Gogo and I’m part of Intelsat.”
However, he also noted that Intelsat competed for the AA business, saying:
Obviously, it’s a competitive market. So, this was a competitive situation at American. But I can say the same for any airline where we’ve got this [ESA] in the backlog; these were competitive environments where we had to compete with all the other people in this market, many of whom are extraordinarily strong. And so yes, I had a good idea of where it was headed, and I knew that the future of inflight Internet is probably not going to be satisfied with air-to-ground.
Intelsat has flight-tested a multi-orbit “experimental” ESA prototype on its own CRJ700 testbed and taken customers for rides on the aircraft, using Intelsat GEO and OneWeb LEO capacity for multi-orbit transmissions. But in February 2024, Intelsat will conduct a prototype installation on the CRJ700 “for credit” to support STC work and “that’s a big deal for us. And so, this is coming to life…”
Intelsat’s has also inked deals with Alaska Airlines, Air Canada and Aerolíneas Argentinas, the latter representing Intelsat’s first widebody win for its ESA. Intelsat’s separate 2Ku product, based on ThinKom Solutions’ proven VICTS antenna technology, also continues to score sales. To wit, Air Canada last fall ordered Intelsat 2Ku for 40 Boeing 737 MAX twinjets.
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