United sees regulatory process slow down wi-fi installations

Los Angeles
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United Airlines is among the airlines that has seen a slow-down in its wi-fi installations as the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has increased its scrutiny for tests of large antennas and radomes for bird strikes across the industry.

The Chicago-based airline had originally planned to install wi-fi from multiple providers on 300 aircraft by the end of the year, but about 100 of those aircraft installations have been delayed the new FAA requirements, says Jason Flint, United's senior manager, interiors and inflight entertainment during a 9 September panel at the Airline Passenger Experience Association (APEX) expo in Anaheim.

"Unfortunately that slipped to--what we're still very aggressively targeting-200 airplanes," says Flint. He notes that the airline has scheduled as many as 60 aircraft in one month to receive the installations once it gains the last remaining approvals.

Installations on United's entire fleet are expected to be completed by December 2014, says Flint. The carrier has agreements with Panasonic Avionics to install the Ku-band system on more than 300 aircraft and is upgrading its 13 premium service Boeing 757s with Gogo's ATG-4 air-to-ground system. It has a contract with LiveTV and ViaSat to install high-speed Ka-band internet on more than 200 Boeing 737 and 757 aircraft.

United now has 90 aircraft outfitted with wi-fi, with supplemental type certificates (STCs) for Panasonic Avionics' satellite-based system and Gogo's air-to-ground system. It is also awaiting certification from JetBlue subsidiary LiveTV for Ka-band satellite internet, which JetBlue received earlier this month. Ka-band certifications have been delayed by a few months, LiveTV tells Flightglobal, however JetBlue's director, product development Jamie Perry tells the panel that certification fell "broadly within the frame of the time we would expect it to take."

David Bruner, Panasonic Avionics' vice-president of global communications services, says that the tightened regulations and new testing criteria have posed significant issues for its business and has affected its bottom line.

"It's had tremendous impact to ourselves and our customers this year in terms of delaying installations," says Bruner on the panel, underscoring that the new testing requirements affect the entire industry. Panasonic's aircraft installations under STCs gained before the new regulations are still ongoing, he says.

The new FAA rules have delayed other airlines' wi-fi installations as well. In April, Flightglobal reported that Delta Air Lines, the launch customer for Gogo's Ku-band satellite service, was experiencing delays in installing the technology on its international long-haul fleet. The carrier had expected to offer the service in early 2013 but is still awaiting final certification after having to undergo additional tests.

While radomes have caused issues for suppliers this year, the issues will smooth out as the industry becomes accustomed to the new FAA standards provided no new risks emerge, says Michael Small, Gogo's chief executive, on the sidelines of the APEX expo.

"I really think the FAA has went through this year figuring out what they want to do about radomes, and there will be a new standard and we'll just all live with it and fly with it, and then it's going to be no big deal," he says.

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.