Flights transiting through oceanic airspace will be permitted to use the Iridium satellite constellation for data service for critical air traffic control communications, under an authorisation from the US Federal Aviation Administration.

The move is a major step forward for aircraft using the navigation and communications system FANS 1/A, enabling aircraft to communicate through voice or datalink connection over Iridium's worldwide coverage network. The concept is known as FANS 1/A-over-Iridium (FOI). The FAA is to lift restrictions on FOI operations in oceanic airspace, adding that the service has the capability to support operations such as automatic dependent surveillance-based separation.

Iridium-based communications have gained broader application in air transport, following wider acceptance in business and general aviation operations with downlinked weather data.

UCON   (c) United Continental 
 © United Continental
 Iridium-based communications have gained broader application

Low-cost carrier AirAsia elected to fit its Airbus A320 fleet with Iridium-supported real-time electronic flight bags in February.

The use of FOI comes "after five years of study, validation and extensive in-flight testing," Iridium chief executive Matt Desch said, adding that FOI could halve operators' capital investment.

In a letter to the FAA, Dave Nakamura, chairman of the administration's Performance-based Operations Aviation Rulemaking Committee Communications Working Group, said: "The global air transportation system will benefit from FANS 1/A over Iridium as it provides a practical alternative for air navigation service providers to expand datalink service and for commercial and business aviation markets to equip their fleets more quickly."

The FAA recently accepted the recommendations of the working group after a year-long operational evaluation of the technology, and Iridium said it expects other air navigation services to "follow the FAA's lead and accept Iridium as a viable option to meet communication needs in their own airspace in the near future".

Continental Airlines conducted the first aircraft communications and reporting system transmission during a passenger service, using the Iridium network, in early 2008.

Source: Flight International