Certification issue delays Delta's Ku-band wi-fi installs

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The initial certification of Gogo's Ku-band wi-fi system on Delta Air Lines' Boeing 767 aircraft is taking longer than expected, the airline and connectivity provider say.

The delay stems from an issue with standardising the way bird strikes should be evaluated when applicants apply to certify large antennas on aircraft under the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA).

Delta, the launch customer for Gogo's Ku-band product, had applied to certify the radome installation on its 767 aircraft earlier this year after undergoing flight testing and the other certification steps, says Amit Patel, manager, fleet projects at Delta on the sidelines of the MRO Americas conference in Atlanta last week.

However, the carrier was required to show the radome was compliant with regulations regarding bird strikes in a different way than it previously anticipated after undergoing the process, he says.

It is understood that this standardisation issue is affecting multiple certification plans for large antennas within the industry.

Some plans for certifying large antennas are understood to propose bird strike evaluation at slower speeds than airworthiness standards require. FAA standards require operators to evaluate bird strikes at design cruise speed (VC) at sea level, or .85VC at 8,000ft.

Delta says the FAA changed its interpretation for how to comply with regulations for radome certification from previous issue papers used as a guide for completing the testing. Therefore, the airline has to undergo these additional tests before finishing the certification.

Delta and Gogo expect that the first 767 aircraft could be certified and flying with the wi-fi as soon as June if the FAA approves the additional tests. Tim Lemaster, Gogo's director of airline operations, said during a panel at the MRO Americas conference on 17 April that the additional bird strike testing was scheduled to be wrapped up by the end of that week, and then sent to the FAA for further evaluation.

It is likely that the airline could be ready to launch the service to customers before the year, says Patel, but that timeline is as of yet undetermined. The first aircraft with Ku-band will be tested internally for a period of time before the airline officially brands and launches the service for customer use on transoceanic flights.

Once it achieves the certification on the first 767, Delta would likely ramp up modifications on subsequent aircraft starting in late August or September as traffic from the busy season subsides, says Patel. The airline generally does not schedule modifications during these periods of high traffic so that it can have as many aircraft on hand as possible for its operations.

In the meantime, Delta has taken steps to provision its Airbus A330 fleet to prepare for subsequent installations of the Ku-band system hardware. So far, the carrier has provisioned one Airbus A330-300 with the technology that is flying now, and is now modifying an Airbus A330-200 to also receive provisions, Patel says. The A330 would have to undergo flight testing and other procedures before it could start flying with any of the Ku-band hardware.

Last June, Delta indicated that it would begin offering inflight internet with the Ku-band system in early 2013 on its international long-haul fleet, completing installations on more than 150 aircraft through 2015. In addition to the 767s and A330s, aircraft types planned to receive the modifications include Boeing 777s, 747s and transoceanic 757s.

It is unclear whether the initial 767 certification delay would affect the overall timeline of the entire installation project. Delta has some flexibility for how it can perform the rest of the wi-fi installations and plans to use several sources to install the Ku-band antennas. One method is a mobile maintenance station set up in Detroit to perform the modifications there. It plans to minimise the downtime of aircraft throughout the modification process by scheduling the installations during regularly scheduled heavy checks when possible.

Much of Delta's domestic fleet is already outfitted with Gogo's air-to-ground (ATG) internet product. The Ku-band installation uses satellite technology to broadcast the internet service on routes over water, which the ATG service is not inherently designed to do.

Gogo aims to perform Ku-band installations with a shorter turnaround time than the industry average.

During a presentation on the MRO panel, Lemaster said that Gogo did the first Ku-band installation in five days, and cited the industry average for the installation be between five and eight days. That timeframe could shorten as more installations are performed, he says.

"We are very confident that we are going to be able to get this in three days or less," said Lemaster, at the conference, adding that the connectivity provider has an ultimate goal of taking each aircraft out of service for only two days.

Gogo's air-to-ground internet product has been installed on more than 1,900 aircraft.

The AeroSat Avionics HR6400 satcom system used for the Ku-band service includes the Ku band satellite antenna, radome, antenna control unit, modem and a transceiver. Gogo will complement the equipment with a server and access points.

Global Eagle Entertainment subsidiary Row 44 said it has not been affected by the bird strike certification testing requirements.

Panasonic Avionics did not comment by press time on the certification issue.