TAM made big news this week with the announcement that it will offer OnAir in-flight connectivity on 27 Airbus A350-900 XWBs, 10 A330s, and 12 Boeing 777-300ERs in addition to its A320 family of jets. The Brazilian carrier deserves kudos for recognizing the importance of offering in-flight connectivity to passengers.
But it should be pointed out that TAM's decision was likely colored by the fact that OnAir's Inmarsat SwiftBroadband (SBB)-supported mobile and Internet solutions are linefit offerable across Airbus' portfolio of aircraft.
OnAir is partly owned by Airbus, and for all intents and purposes represents the European airframer's in-house connectivity solution. So if you're an Airbus customer that wants to offer connectivity, your easiest point of entry is to take delivery of aircraft already fitted with the necessary kit. I wonder why OnAir rarely highlights this fact in the meat of its announcements.
In any case, Airbus has made one exception, and that is on the A350. The new design widebody aircraft is the only Airbus type that offers airlines the option of an alternative linefit connectivity solution.
A350 customers can pick between the following pairings: Panasonic Avionics in-flight entertainment with Panasonic's own connectivity platform and Ku-band-based mobile and Internet solutions; Panasonic IFE with Airbus' ALNA v2 connectivity platform plus OnAir's mobile and Internet solutions using two channels of SBB; or Thales IFE with Airbus ALNA v2 plus OnAir mobile and Internet with two channels of SBB.
So, in essence, at present A350 customers can pick between two connectivity hardware providers - Panasonic or Airbus. Panasonic's solution supports high-speed Internet, while Airbus' solution provides speeds of up to 432 kbps. TAM chose the latter.
Had TAM been in the position - or so inclined - to make its A350 connectivity decision at a later date, it would have had other options from which to choose.
Airbus is eyeing Inmarsat's superfast Ka-band-based Global Xpress for the A350 once the service becomes available (around 2014/2015 timeframe).
Critically, however, by the end of March 2011 (when Airbus convened an A350 catalog focus group), the airframer admitted to be studying three different IFE and Ka connectivity pairings and each will see the airframer play a critical role in the connectivity.
Airbus is studying: Panasonic IFE with the Airbus ALNA v2 connectivity platform and OnAir Mobile and Internet via Ka; Thales IFE with ALNA v2 connectivity platform and OnAir Mobile and Internet via Ka; and Thales IFE with a Thales/ALNA v2 connectivity platform plus OnAir Mobile and Thales Internet via Ka.
That's a very long-winded way of saying that Airbus has become an in-flight connectivity force to be reckoned with (even more so now that Boeing has stopped linefitting connectivity to its widebody aircraft.)
Meanwhile, TAM says it chose OnAir because of the services the Airbus/SITA JV offers and the timeframe in which the firm can offer those services.
Quote from TAM's Fabio Lopes:
"OnAir technology will be linefit on TAM's A350s only. For all the other aircraft types, it will be retrofitted. The retrofit will be done in TAM's MRO center in Brazil. There are several reasons why TAM chose OnAir, all of which are to do with the services OnAir offers and the ability to equip the aircraft in the specified timeframe. The company is also the only one to have all the relevant regulatory approvals from the Brazilian authorities, and roaming agreements with South American telecoms companies."