Come on Delta, you’ve got competition!

Readers of this blog knew a week ago that United-Continental was planning fleet-wide connectivity, and had tapped Panasonic Avionics for a portion of the business. But it was still great to see confirmation of the news today from the horse’s mouth as well as some precious details about the mammoth deal, which calls for the installation of Panasonic’s eXConnect system on United-Continental Boeing 747s, 757s, 767s, 777s, 787s (!!!) as well as Airbus A319s and A320s.

In so doing, United-Continental has become the first US carrier in recent years to announce plans for bringing connectivity to overseas flights (a decade ago United, along with Delta and American, scuttled plans to invest in and offer Connexion by Boeing’s now-defunct connectivity service in the wake of 9/11).

United-Continental’s announcement comes just over two months after the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) formally granted blanket authority to Panasonic for domestic operation of up to 50 technically identical transmit/receive aircraft earth stations in the Aeronautical Mobile Satellite Service (AMSS).

And it follows Continental Airlines’ earlier announcement to bring JetBlue subsidiary LiveTV’s Ka-band connectivity service to some 200 Boeing aircraft being fitted with the LTV3 live television system. 

Of course, United-Continental has plenty of incentive to get the ball rolling on fleet-wide connectivity equipage – it has distributed Apple iPad-based EFBs to pilots, and ultimately intends to bring real-time applications to the devices; its Star Alliance partner Lufthansa is equipping its own fleet with Panasonic’s eXConnect, and is bringing real-time EFB to pilots; and its competitors in the United States, namely its former Connexion buddies Delta and American are big-time users of Gogo’s domestic air-to-ground (ATG)-based connectivity in the United States. Indeed, Delta, which offers Gogo across its domestic fleet, and is fitting its regional jets with the service, has its own big plans for driving operational benefits from its connectivity pipe.

But will Delta, or American for that matter, sit idly by and watch as United-Continental steels the glory of being the first US carrier to offer Wi-Fi across the Atlantic? I wonder.

We know that Gogo has been quietly testing an Aerosat Ku-band antenna in its offices; and we know that Delta has said it ultimately plans to offer connectivity on overseas flights. Perhaps United-Continental’s announcement will give Delta a little foot in the rear to move on equipping its long-haul fleet (or maybe Delta doesn’t need a foot, and will manage to trump United by getting Ku onto some of its aircraft sooner). United-Continental says installs of eXConnect will begin in mid-2012 so There Is Still Time for Delta (or American or another US major) to surprise.

Meanwhile, this Runway Girl is feeling a little deja vu today. You see, I was there when Connexion by Boeing announced its partnership with American, Delta and United on June 13, 2001 at the Press Club in Washington DC, and I wrote the following piece for Air Transport Intelligence (now known as FlightglobalPro). For history buffs, check out the final pars of my article to see how Airbus had started building a competitive product to Connexion. The venture ultimately joined forces with SITA to became OnAir, which today has become one of Panasonic’s most formidable competitors for in-flight connectivity on international routes.

Oh wait, and before I forget – CONGRATULATIONS United-Continental! You’ve given this reluctant US Airways frequent flyer something to smile about today.

Boeing teams with US majors for Connexion joint venture
Mary Kirby, Washington DC (13Jun01, 18:20 GMT, 528 words)

In a departure from its original strategy, Boeing has teamed up with American Airlines, Delta Air Lines and United Airlines to market its Connexion airborne Internet service under a new joint business venture.

Each airline has signed a letter of intent to take an undisclosed equity stake in the Connexion program as well as to equip a total of 1,500 aircraft with the service. Boeing will maintain overall management responsibility as majority shareholder of Connexion.

Speaking to reporters in Washington DC today, Connexion president Scott Carson confirms the new venture will retain the Connexion by Boeing name and will continue to develop broadband services for inf-flight e-mail, Internet access, corporate intranets, live television and other services.

But today’s joint venture deal means the structure of Connexion will be differ from what Boeing had originally envisioned when it unveiled the program in late April 2000.

At that time, the company outlined a plan to act as the sole seller of the service. Boeing discovered, however, that airlines were nervous about the costs and risk involved in equipping their aircraft on a large scale.

Connexion president Scott Carson says Boeing now believes “it will take this kind of collaboration” to bring the service to the marketplace.

“Each of the airlines and Boeing bring together a critical mass to help ensure success for this service with airline passengers and the global airline industry,” he says, adding that Boeing and the airlines each will contribute funding, certain intellectual property, and other assets.

As a collaborative venture, Connexion will also work to sell the service to other carriers. “We are in discussions with a wide range of other airlines and expect that other announcements are forthcoming,” says Carson.

After definitive agreements are signed, the airlines intend each to equip 500 aircraft with Connexion’s broadband Internet connectivity service. Retrofits will begin in the second half of 2002, with each carrier agreeing to initially test the service on ten aircraft.

American vice president of corporate development and treasure James Beer tells ATI that all three carriers are “looking to make Connexion available throughout the cabins” of their aircraft. Beer says American wants to eventually equip its entire fleet with the system. Meanwhile, Delta and United appear more comfortable installing Connexion on their long haul fleets only.

Boeing does not reveal the anticipated cost of installation, but Carson assures “the scope of the installations will allow the venture’s system and service to be designed and developed for reasonable costs”.

Delta senior vice president of technical operations Ray Valeika points out that the Connexion service will “open up” a range of other possibilities to the carriers, potentially allowing them improve communication with crew in-flight concerning weather, maintenance and logistical issues.

Boeing is one of a number of company’s seeking to provide broadband or to optimize narrowband data services to the airlines. Airborne Internet service provider Tenzing Communications, in which Cathay Pacific has a small stake, has been making considerable progress in the market.

Airbus Industrie is buying a sizeable stake in Tenzing and Airbus executive vice president customer affairs John Leahy has stated his company will make a key announcement about its in-flight entertainment strategy in June.
Source: Air Transport Intelligence news

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