AirAsia to fit A320 fleet with Iridium-supported real-time EFBs

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Malaysian low-cost carrier AirAsia intends to fit its Airbus A320 fleet with Class III electronic flight bags (EFBs), which feature an 'always on' configuration that enables duty dispatchers to constantly monitor position, have access to real-time flight performance parameters and communicate recommendations, company messages, the latest weather trends and/or Notams to crewmembers via the Iridium satellite network.

Installation of Singapore-based Flight Focus's so-called "Platform" EFB solution is to begin in March at a rate of 15 aircraft per month with the anticipation that all systems will be collectively switched on by August, says George Hitchins, a Flight Focus sales director.

The deal is in addition to the services already provided by Flight Focus to AirAsia's long-haul affiliate AirAsia X, whose Airbus A330 and A340 aircraft have already been retrofitted with EFBs on long haul flights to destinations in Europe, the Middle East, Australia and throughout Asia.

Whereby AirAsia will handle its own flight dispatch for the A320s, Flight Focus is "doing the full package" for Air Asia X, says Hitchins, noting that the firm has "a 24-hour dispatch team".

AirAsia Captain Michael Lee, the project coordinator/technical pilot assigned for this project, says: "As a pilot, to be able to obtain the latest data [weather, Notams, snowtams, sigmets, Volcanic ash reports] is a key element for quicker decision making and more efficient flight management.

"Having more sets of 'eyes' watching you with real-time flight following performance data from a connected EFB gives comfort to pilots that they are not alone. Maintenance proactiveness is increased with the same connected EFB alerting them with current faults or 'unusual engine behaviour'. Pilots can then communicate and seek recommendations or best actions commercially for the company, without compromising safety."

AirAsia and Flight Focus tout the global reach and cost benefits of using narrow-band Iridium. "Where traditional ACARS text messaging is sent via VHF, HF or Satcom [mostly Immarsat] at 2.4Kbps, we have developed bit-oriented data compression through Iridium [also at 2.4Kbps], which enables us to achieve between four to eight times higher 'usable' bandwidth, where usable relates to a direct like-for-like comparison between traditional ACARS messaging versus our implementation over Iridium," according to Flight Focus. "When the airlines compare costs, it equates to a saving of up to 16 times reduction from comparable ACARS."

Higher-bandwidth solutions, such as Ku-band satellite-supported systems, require the installation of Ku antennas, resulting in a heavier fuel/load penalty. "Another point to note is simplicity of installation - the Iridium narrow-band system AirAsia uses employs a very small antenna only (flat, about 10cm diameter), and operates on low-power equipment. All this contributes to lower cost, while still giving 100% of the capability that is required, fittable in 12h end-to-end," says Captain Lee.

Flight Focus, meanwhile, says it is "well on the way to adding additional EASA STCs" to its collection in support of "new customers who have approached us".