Q: Which of your several aviation markets are you focusing on in Paris?
A: Iridium has been traditionally used in the general and business aviation markets. But over the last 12-18 months the service has also been adopted by regional carriers, cargo airlines and now, as announced here in Paris, a full-service long-haul carrier. El Al of Israel plans to equip seven Boeing 747-200s for flightdeck voice and data communications on long-haul flights. That's our first major carrier and we plan to announce another here at the show.
Q: Iridium is popular with the US Army - are military aviation applications beginning to emerge?
A: Several are being looked at - some we can talk about, some we can't. We plan to announce activity with the US Air Force and US Marines during the show. But Military Airlift Command already uses Iridium for voice communications on long-haul flights, and there are several other government applications.
The Forest Service requires airborne firefighting contractors to use satellite and Iridium has been selected. The State Department has an airborne application in which Iridium is used for both voice and flight tracking, and the Department of the Interior uses the system for flight-following in Alaska. Most significantly, we are seeing US military programmes using the system moving from the R&D phase towards operational deployments - Iridium is starting to become entrenched as part of the military communications infrastructure.
Q: What is the balance between voice and data usage among your aviation users?
A: A year ago voice probably accounted for more than 95% of our aviation traffic. At the end of last year that figure was 90% voice, and we are now projecting a significant growth in applications using our short-burst data capability, to the point where they will contribute 50% of our total aviation revenues by the end of the year. Whereas voice is used in a discretionary way, typically by VIPs in the back of the aircraft, the data applications are embedded into the everyday operation of the aircraft.
Q: Which data applications are proving most popular among aviation users?
A: Flight-following is clearly the one that is growing fastest, with ACARS-type operational messaging next. Several of our service providers - including AeroMechanical Systems, with Aloha Airlines, and Blue Sky Network - have developed operational messaging applications. Third, but much less significant, is passenger email.
Q: What benefits are being reported by aviation users of your data services?
A: They fall into three categories - safety, revenue enhancement, and operational efficiency. Helicopter operators supporting oil and gas exploration in the Gulf of Mexico and Africa, for instance, are required by their customers to have a flight-following capability for safety purposes - if an aircraft goes down, the search area is minimised.
On the revenue side, it is the helicopter medevac companies in the USA who benefit. They bill their customers on the basis of air-miles flown and in the past have been able to claim only for distance covered in a straight line on the map. Now they can give an accurate and verifiable account whenever they have to detour around traffic, and consequently are paid more fairly for the miles they cover.
The firefighting services provide a good example of the operational efficiencies. The spotter aircraft that are first to the scene of a fire can fly around its perimeter, reporting back accurate GPS-derived co-ordinates as they go. Supplied with that information, the waterbomber crews can then accurately plot the location and extent of the fire and fly directly to it.
Q: Is the company contemplating any developments to increase data rates, and is it coming under pressure from users to do so?
A: We're still seeing strong demand for services based on our 2.4kbit/sec data channels. Don't forget that aviation has worked with operational data services running at 2.4kbit/sec or less for some time now and has wide experience of them. So our near-term focus is on continuing to grow that kind of application - there's still a lot of need out there.
But we're always looking for ways to improve our capabilities, and as part of our plan for constellation replenishment from 2009-10 we will look at ways of upgrading our services. That could include increased data speeds. In the meantime, though, users can gang together multiple channels and use compression to get higher speeds.
Q: Besides AeroMechanical Systems, who are your most important service partners in the aviation arena, and how do they support the distribution of your service?
A: Honeywell is very active with its compact AirSat II two-channel airborne terminal and is expected to make a number of announcements here at the show. AirCell is the leading player in the general and business aviation market. It recently announced the approval of one of its terminals as a data channel for updating content on Rockwell Collins's Airshow 4000 passenger information system, and this summer it will demonstrate a business-aircraft picocell designed to deliver in-cabin cellphone communications to the ground via the Iridium system.
Blue Sky Network is very active in the GA work market - helicopters, the Forest Service - with an integrated voice plus flight-following application. And Sky Connect is making a similar push into that market, as well as being responsible for the new El Al application.
Q: What share of the overall Iridium business does aviation now account for, and is it growing?
A: While it's still a relatively small part of the business, aviation is also the fastest-growing vertical market of them all. At the end of last year we passed the mark of 2,500 aircraft with installed Iridium equipment, as opposed to the handheld units used informally by bush pilots in Alaska and elsewhere. We expect to see that number double by the end of this year. That compares with a current total of more than 120,000 subscribers across all of our markets.
As for aviation-related traffic, it has so far been in line with the size of the subscriber base. But, because of the routine usage of the growing number of data applications, we do expect our aviation customers to start punching above their weight in terms of usage.
A: Activity was concentrated originally in the north of North America, principally Alaska, but we're now seeing growth throughout the continent and extending into South America, and among energy exploration helicopter operators in Africa.
Source: Flight Daily News