NBAA 09: Swift deployment

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European fractional ownership start-up Jet Republic's collapse this summer produced more than its fair share of collateral damage.

In addition to erasing a record $1.5 billion order for 110 Learjet 60XRs from Bombardier's books, and putting an even more solemn face on the troubled business jet market, Jet Republic's shutdown killed the largest order for SwiftBroadband systems that was ever placed and took a sizeable chunk out of in-flight connectivity service provider Aircell's backlog for the product.

Aircell had been tapped to supply the Jet Republic fleet with its Thrane & Thrane-powered solution, which uses Inmarsat's 432kbit/s SwiftBroadband service over L-band satellites to bring in-flight email and "light internet service" to passengers via their personal laptops, personal digital assistants and smartphones.

aircell
 © Aircell

The service is designed to operate in standalone form or in conjunction with the Aircell Axxess cabin system, which supports multiple channels of worldwide voice and narrowband data service via the Iridium satellite network.

EMBRACING TECHNOLOGY

However, if the loss of the Portuguese business jet operator's substantial order took any wind out of Aircell's sails, the company did not show it.

On the day of Jet Republic's closure, Aircell senior vice-president and general manager - business aviation services John Wade said: "This morning's announcement changes our backlog, but I don't think it changes our adoption rate. We're seeing folks across the board wanting to embrace SwiftBroadband, largely outside North America."

So Bombardier has been finding customers for the Learjet 60XRs that were in final assembly, and earmarked for Jet Republic. The aircraft are the first in the Learjet 60 category to be outfitted with on-board internet.

"We're really excited about bringing something new to the marketplace, especially during this time," says Bombardier vice-president and general manager Learjet Business Aircraft David Coleal.

Two Learjet 60XRs equipped with Aircell's SwiftBroadband solution - one outfitted in Bombardier's new "Red" interior and the other labelled "Black" - will be on static display at the annual National Business Aviation Association meeting and convention in Orlando, Florida on 20-22 October.

The irony is not lost on Inmarsat that SwiftBroadband is garnering so much attention in a down economy. "The interesting thing is that, if you look at Swift64 [Inmarsat's 64kbps data per channel], it continues to increase. We haven't seen any drop in revenue. And if you look at SwiftBroadband, we now have more than 400 channels of SwiftBroadband flying. It's the fastest-growing aeronautical service in Inmarsat's history. Some operators have multiple channels, and some are in air transport, but at the moment, we're doing really, really well," says Lars Ringertz, Inmarsat's head of marketing aeronautical business.

The reason why SwiftBroadband "is the logical, optimal system" for business aircraft operators outside North America, says Wade, is that it offers global coverage, fits on virtually all business aircraft types and is competitive in price.

Providers of Ku-band satellite-based connectivity solutions, such as Arinc Direct's SkyLink service and ViaSat's Yonder service, "are adding more and more territories to operate Ku, but the issue is really affordability", says Wade.

"Ku remains the most expensive solution for most aircraft. And, other than the Global Express-sized aircraft, you really can't fit it on. It's too big," Wade adds.

Ringertz says that about half of the estimated 100 aircraft using SkyLink are currently "using Swift64 when outside the coverage of Ku".

BROADBAND SUPPORT

Another SwiftBroadband-supported in-flight connectivity service is being offered to the business jet community by Airbus/Sita joint venture OnAir, which also boasts a growing roster of clients in the commercial sector, including Ryanair.

The company's "Mobile OnAir" solution connects passengers' phones or BlackBerry-type devices to an antenna on board the aircraft and a miniature mobile network. The mini-GSM network sends the calls and data to the ground via the SwiftBroadband link. There it connects to the OnAir ground infrastructure. This then routes the calls and data to public networks, both mobile and fixed network operators.

For business jet operators, says OnAir: "It can be said that there are three benefits to work with: the operator doesn't have to manage the phone bills as the communications costs go straight on the passenger's bill; unlike other/traditional services, passengers can use their own devices with their stored numbers; and the passenger can be reached as normal without the caller having to know where he or she is."

Aircell's Wade stresses that the Mobile OnAir offering differs greatly from its own SwiftBroadband-facilitated product. "OnAir is primarily focusing on GSM services and less really on the internet side. They are totally different systems in some ways. Yes, they use the same satellites, but right now the channel availability for SwiftBroadband limits your ability in how to use those channels."

Would Aircell team with an in-flight mobile connectivity provider like OnAir? "I think we'd be happy to engage in a dialogue on that front," says Wade, who believes that SwiftBroadband will have "a much broader acceptance in the business jet marketplace than it will ever achieve in commercial".

In the continental USA, where regulators ban the use of mini cell networks on aircraft and where there exists a robust infrastructure of ground stations, some business aircraft stakeholders are gravitating towards Aircell's air-to-ground-based broadband system, called the ATG 4000. The system is known to commercial airlines as Gogo.

LOW-COST CONNECTIVITY

Acquired via auction in 2006, Aircell holds an exclusive licence to use 3MHz of the 4MHz of spectrum in the 800MHz band allocated to air-to-ground services in the USA.

JetBlue subsidiary LiveTV picked up the 1Mhz slice of spectrum, and is now using it to bring an ultra-low-cost connectivity solution to business aircraft operators.

Dassault Falcon, meanwhile, recently became the first business airframer to offer the ATG 4000 across its entire fleet of jets, comprising the Falcon 7X, 900LX, 900EX, 900DX, 2000LX and 2000DX. The first equipped aircraft is scheduled for customer delivery in the fourth quarter of 2010.

"In this day and age, it's seldom we talk to customers without discussing what in-flight connectivity options are available," says Dassault Falcon vice-president for programmes Eric Monsel.

"People want to be as fully connected aboard their aircraft as they are in their office. The Aircell high-speed internet system is requested frequently because it fulfils that need and no other solution on the market is as fast, light and affordable," he adds.