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Debate swirls as Airbus pushes communications strategy

Airbus's decision not to make any alternative in-flight mobile connectivity service provider's solutions line-fit offerable on its portfolio of aircraft at present has drawn criticism from some stakeholders. They question whether the European airframer is playing fair in the increasingly competitive in-flight entertainment and connectivity sector.

But while the manufacturer admits it has not given the green light for line-fit offerability to any mobile connectivity provider other than OnAir - its joint venture with SITA - it rejects claims of anti-competitive behaviour. Instead Airbus points to a changing environment that requires it to assume greater control of the basic communications architecture of the aircraft as the need grows for robust connectivity to support cockpit and flight-critical communications.

"Airbus is not opposed to competition either from service providers or hardware suppliers," says Airbus vice-president cabin design Jonathan Norris.

"Satcom or whatever other means of 'off-aircraft' connectivity is not the sole domain of an IFE provider. We have a need for off-aircraft connectivity which is becoming more and more non-IFE related, and more related to cockpit and flight-critical communications, and we don't believe that this is a domain where we should be beholden to one or more IFE suppliers," he adds.

Norris' sentiments ring hollow to some industry players, who claim Airbus is telling airlines that OnAir is the only option available to those that want mobile connectivity line-fit on the A320, A330, A340 and A380, as well the A350 XWB widebody, which is expected to enter into service in 2013.

Sources allege the strategy is stifling competition, not only in the mobile connectivity space but for data applications as well. "No other vendor is going to be potentially able to offer a SwiftBroadband solution on an Airbus aircraft," alleges a source.

Another source claims there is a battle going on between Airbus and one A380 operator, who is being told the widebody "is being tuned totally for OnAir and SITA".

The debate has grown particularly thorny as Airbus has not made OnAir rival AeroMobile's mobile connectivity service line-fit offerable on any of its aircraft. AeroMobile has already successfully retrofitted its system, currently supported by Inmarsat's "Classic" and Swift64 services, on six different airframe types spanning both Airbus and Boeing aircraft.

The line-fit issue is also impacting Panasonic Avionics, a primary distributor of AeroMobile hardware, which offers the system under the brand eXPhone as part of a suite of connectivity solutions, which also includes the Ku-band-based eXConnect high-speed connectivity system.

"We are having difficulty receiving offerability for both eXPhone and eXConnect despite several customer requests," says Panasonic Avionics vice-president, global communications services David Bruner. "Panasonic is working hard with Airbus to try to work through these issues for the sake of the customers."

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